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Other people’s lives

The Family (Channel 4, Wednesday); Merlin (BBC 1)

24 September 2008

12:00 AM

24 September 2008

12:00 AM

There was a sad moment in The Family (Channel 4, Wednesday) this week when Dad, the very long-suffering Simon Hughes, is inspecting his daughters’ bedroom, and doesn’t like what he sees. He has been assured that the room is neat and clean, so he responds with a blast of sarcasm. ‘Oh, look at this tidy, tidy, tidy room, oh crumbs, how tidy it is, all this stuff doesn’t exist, it’s a figment of my imagination…’ I felt a blast of pity for him. Most dads, like me, would have given up long ago but he goes onward, ever onward, in the quest for orderly bedrooms. Sisyphus had it easier with his rock.

Of course, the kids don’t see it that way. One of the girls has a voice-over (strange device for a reality show, inviting the victims to provide their own commentary) and says, ‘Who cares about a few plates and glasses? No wonder we don’t talk to him about serious things,’ which sounded like plain common sense, though all dads know perfectly well that even if they let the floor disappear altogether under a Jurassic stratum of plates, mugs and cups, there is no way the girls would breeze along for a chat about their latest boyfriend, his tattoos, and how far they should let him go now they’ve been an item for almost a week. As Emily says, ‘Typical dad, wants to know everything. Doesn’t he realise we need to keep a few secrets?’ As all parents know, cute little babies are nature’s bribe to make you have teenagers.

Another critic has said that The Family is simultaneously boring and fascinating, and I can see what that means. It’s boring because there’s no real plot. Everything goes round in circles. Highly strung Emily wants to go clubbing and doesn’t let anyone forget it. Easy-going Charlotte wants to leave school and she bangs on about that. It’s entrancing because it resembles everyone’s home life. We reprise the same arguments, the same meals, the same visitors, the same television shows. That’s what we like about home. Let the outside world be full of dramatic events, challenges, credit crunches and homicidal cyclists — at home we prefer things to chunter on much as they always do. They certainly do chez Hughes.

There are, we are told, 100 cameras secreted about the home, which means that we chase them everywhere except the bathroom. In the original The Family 34 years ago, possibly the first-ever reality show, the cast were followed everywhere by men with cameras hoisted on their shoulders. They could not be ignored. The Hughes family, by contrast, often seem to forget that every word and move is being recorded, and — much worse — edited. I can’t see yet which way this series will jump — it might get appalling ratings for being dull, or it might successfully replace the utterly moribund Big Brother. We should know within a week.

Merlin (BBC 1, Sunday) is Arthurian legend turned into a video game. Everything, including the enormous Camelot, looks like a collection of pixels. Young Merlin, a teenage warlock, arrives at the castle just in time to watch a brutal beheading. Then Morgan Le Faye, a hideous crone, vows revenge on Uther Pendragon and disappears, leaving only a bundle of rags to evaporate in the air. Yet Merlin looks quite unsurprised by this turn of events, wandering off like a boy whose mother has told him to come in for tea. He gets into a fight with another youth, not knowing this is the future King Arthur — written as an odious bully and played by an actor who looks a lot like Prince William — so is hurled into a dungeon, where he looks mildly uncomfortable, as if he’d had too many WKDs at two-for-one night. The language is very modern and up-to-date (‘I’ll be outside if you need me’; to the prince: ‘How long have you been training to be a prat — my lord?’). Normally this kind of anachronistic dialogue makes my teeth fur over, but since Camelot didn’t exist, and if it did I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how they talked, it doesn’t seem to matter much.

The show belts along and I suspect young people will enjoy it a lot. But it is really a cunning knock-off of Harry Potter, in which a very modern young person gets involved in magic and sci-fi and meets a dragon who sounds like John Hurt because he’s voiced by John Hurt. Even Camelot looks like Hogwarts after the builders have been in.

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