The technology of reality: Channel 4′s The Family

London-based Firefly Productions, part of the Shine Group, has used crewless multi-camera equipment for a number of series, including Britain's Deadliest Addictions. Carol Nahra looks at this technology and the hows and whys of its use on C4's The Family.
November 17, 2008

It was an idea quickly conceived over lunch: take some of the reality tricks of the trade, namely crewless multi-camera equipment used to equip Big Brother and other settings, and apply it to the modern family. London-based Firefly Productions, part of the Shine Group, had successfully used such kit in a number of series, including Britain’s Deadliest Addictions to observe drug addicts as they kick the habit. Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Simon Dickson felt that the center ground of British factual TV was getting a bit ‘samey’ and wanted to embark on some landmark series. So they set out to find the perfect British family who would agree to be filmed for 100 days and nights, no holds barred.

‘It looked like a bonkers idea that, if it was ever pulled off, might just be brilliant,’ Dickson said in a session at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where he and others discussed the making of The Family, which has just completed an eight week run, and emerged as a solid hit for Channel 4. Finding the right family proved the greatest hurdle, with more than a hundred closely scrutinized families not making the grade, and one falling through after the 11th hour, after their house had already been equipped. After more than a year of searching and ‘spending Channel 4 money like it was going out of style,’ according to panel moderator Peter Dale, in walked the Hughes family, and their problems were solved. ‘It was obvious quite quickly with the Hughes that they were a special family,’ said producer Fozia Khan.

With four children ranging from 14 to 21, including a ‘wildchild’ 19-year-old clubbing daughter, the family immediately appealed. The production was able to relocate the family living next door, so they could take up residence, turning it into a studio and post-production facility to track the 21 cameras, on three continuous streams. Acclaimed British film maker Jonathan Smith (The Trust and Make Me Normal) was chosen to direct the entire series, and shape the seemingly mundane goings-on of a single family (and 5,500 hours of footage) into storylines which would keep viewers returning for more.

Early on the makers decided they would eschew commentary and interviews. Music played a major part in helping shape the moods, with Dickson explaining that each episode was designed to make viewers laugh, cry and be moved by commercial music (dictated in large part by the family’s own choice of music). That the makers were able to make each episode compelling to so many viewers given the self-imposed constraints – and the lack of a dramatic narrative (one episode focused on a missing sweater), has made many folks sit up and take notice. ShineReveille is now pushing out The Family internationally – a number of territories are likely to see either the British series or their own version soon.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.