Paul Watson obituary: British pioneer of the fly-on-the-wall documentary

Among Watson’s most influential achievements in broadcasting is his 1974 series The Family, which – long before reality TV – filmed a real British family around the clock.

6 December 2023

By Nick Bradshaw

Paul Watson (centre) in a production shot for his groundbreaking BBC series The Family (1974) © BBC

The British television documentarian Paul Watson, who died at the age of 81 on 18 November, was a filmmaker of high ideals and trenchant convictions, but his place in the history of his medium is assured by what was in the first place a structural contribution he made to its art and reach.

His 12-part 1974 series The Family, now remembered as the prototype of observational or fly-on-the-wall TV, wasn’t a complete original – it followed a similar experiment on US public TV, Craig Gilbert’s An American Family, which embedded for seven months with the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. Nor was it so groundbreaking in its recording of seemingly spontaneous life; the pioneers of the cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema movements in the late 1950s and 60s had led the charge with mobile subject-led cinematography on the big screen, while Roger Graef’s 1972 The Space Between Words series allied that live-capture openness with long-form TV runtimes to unfold the inner workings of institutions. But when Watson, co-director Franc Roddam and crew joined the Wilkins family – bus driver Terry, housewife Margaret and sundry grown children and partners – in their small flat above a Reading greengrocers, filming them 18 hours a day for three months (doing anything except “making love and using the lavatory”), they set up a loop, a mass-broadcast mirror: one working-class family’s muddles and struggles relayed to millions more, household to households. In class-bound Britain, this was a radical airing of the lower orders’ laundry. It belongs in any history of the social levelling of postwar Britain.

The Family (1974)
BBC

Of course the nation’s moral guardians were outraged. But the result was more interestingly double-edged. The Family certainly broke down social walls: if Watson wasn’t handing the Wilkins authorial control of their own representation (British TV would get to that innovation with the first-person video diaries format in the 1990s), he was certainly giving them an extensive platform, and strove to show their struggles and social problems as well as their resources of character and community. But the act of representation wasn’t neutral – and Watson (more so than An American Family, which finished filming before beginning broadcast) took care to document the feedback in the loop, from the Wilkins’ initial thoughts on participating in the project to a final self-reflexive episode showing the circus of cameras and passing fans and a studio chat about the value of the project, featuring the director and a displeased vicar. 

The Wilkins became lifelong occasional media stories. Where was the line between nonfiction art and entertainment? Might not a less conscientious producer play down their subjects’ social conditions and play up their idiosyncrasies, and encourage their participants to do the same?

When Watson repeated the formula in a nouveau riche Australian suburb in 1992’s Sylvania Waters, with delineated character arcs and episode cliffhangers, critics coined the term ‘docusoap’. His 1986 one-off The Fishing Party, weekending on a Scottish skate-catching challenge with four loose-lipped City traders, could also be accused of upward derision – not that these young Thatcherites flaunted much goodwill of their own. Protagonists of both pieces accused Watson of stitch-ups. But television’s ensuing docusoap gold rush brought out Watson’s fullest ire. They “aren’t even funny, they aren’t enlightening; they don’t even scratch the surface of understanding,” he told an interviewer. “They are just cheap, mostly made by middle-class people sneering at ordinary people, and I deeply resent that.” As for reality TV, the new millennium’s next wave of nonfiction manipulation: “Why pay a fortune to put on original drama, or invest in a serious, investigative documentary, when you can get away with a cheap series simply by pointing a camera at someone wanting self-promotion?”

Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell (2007)
ITV

Instead Watson’s late career highlights, when he began self-shooting, saw him ally with those shunned or sidelined. Malcolm and Barbara: A Love Story (1999) profiled a man with Alzheimer’s and his wife, and elicited a sequel, Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell (2007), Watson’s final film. (Watson himself had dementia in his final years.) The Queen’s Wedding (2002), Watson’s first for his own production company, hinged on a wedding in Manchester’s gay community. And Rain in My Heart (2006), which won a Grierson award, hewed to four alcoholics and their loved ones. 

Watson continued to self-interrogate: Malcolm and Barbara includes inserts in which he justifies showing Malcolm in his infirmity, while Rain in My Heart opens with him assailing both incurious TV editors and the docusoaps that have scorched the trust of hospital managers in letting him film.

Born in London and schooled at a Cheshire grammar school, Watson studied at the Royal College of Art before joining the BBC as a researcher on Whicker’s World in 1967, writing and directing for BBC Two’s A Year in the Life slot a year later. He continued to regard himself as an artist – mixing tones, breaking rules – and, as predictable with any artist who held true to mischief and trouble, he had an in and out career through the television institutions, running production units at BBC Elstree from 1989 to 1994 and at United Productions from 1999 to 2002, with a stint at Granada in between.

In 2008 he was given a special-achievement BAFTA award, after which he paid tribute to the worth of his on-screen collaborators: “The people who are in my films, I can only thank them first and primar[il]y,” he told an interviewer near the door. “I’m very lucky that people trust me into their lives, I’m very lucky that people have things they really want to say who aren’t normally on television, they aren’t the A-list of anywhere, and they make the most the most exciting, interesting and sociopolitical statements and television must not stop doing that, even when I pop my clogs.”

  • Paul Watson, 17 February 1942 to 18 November 2023
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