Paul Watson, documentary maker behind The Family
Paul Watson, who has died aged 81 after suffering from dementia, was a distinguished TV documentarymaker. He pioneered fly-on-the-wall films, bringing people’s daily lives into viewers’ homes. In 1974 he made his reputation with The Family, a 12-part series following Terry and Margaret Wilkins and their children in Reading.
Watson and his crew spent three months with them, filming 18 hours a day to present a portrait of family life, warts and all, that was as close to reality as possible.
The clean-up television campaigner Mary Whitehouse, among others, attacked the programme, complaining that the Wilkinses would be seen to be a “representative” family as they swore, took on the benefits system and talked honestly about sex, race and having children outside marriage.
Watson directed The Family with Franc Roddam, basing it on the 1973 US series An American Family. Its style revived that of the documentary movement led by John Grierson decades earlier and furthered by those in television from the 1950s such as Denis Mitchell and Norman Swallow, who depicted working-class life and gave a voice to the voiceless.
Similarly, Watson said he wanted to “make a film about the kind of people who never got on to television”. The Family was groundbreaking in being a series, rather than a one-off. It paved the way for other fly-on-the-wall programmes. Two decades later, the form evolved into “docusoap”, a label that some critics gave to Sylvania Waters (1992), which Watson produced. The series made a celebrity of Noeline Baker and her family in Sydney but caused a backlash, for which they blamed Watson, when yobs graffitied their plush waterfront house and the Australian deputy prime minister claimed that the smoking, swearing, hard-drinking Noeline was symptomatic of the country’s current health problems.
Watson left the BBC in 1994, later saying: “I was kicked out. The BBC can’t operate with one or two so-called mavericks.” His later films were made mostly for Channel 4 and ITV. The new docusoap genre was also dubbed “reality TV”, a term that Watson later fought vigorously against. “What now passes as reality TV is, of course, far from real,” he wrote in 2008. “Such shows are as scripted and
"I was a boring young lefty and was tired of the Oxbridge brigade talking to camera
choreographed as any drama.” Much of his work after joining the BBC in 1967 was on traditional single documentaries. “When I went into TV, I was a boring young lefty and I was tired of the Oxbridge brigade talking to camera,” he said.
As a director, without overtly broadcasting his political views, he satirised the upper middle-classes in The Fishing Party (1986), with City of London commodity brokers hunting, shooting and fishing as they talk about making money, the need for discipline, bringing back capital punishment, getting married in order to have children and someone to drive them home when drunk, and dogs being more useful than women.
“I’m not really worried about the country, actually,” says one. “I’m worried about me.” Watson saw
The Fishing Party as a chance to make a comment on the get-richquick Thatcher years.
The theme continued in The Dinner Party (1997), screened before an election the Conservative party was expected to lose – and did. Eight white, middle-class Tories responded to an ad in the Daily Telegraph to take part in the dinner party and tucked into prawns and pork while they made racist comments and denounced “queers in the army” and the “work-shy” unemployed. The twopart White Lives (1998) featured mostly bigoted white South Africans voicing their fears in the post-apartheid era.
Watson was accused of being a “stitch-up merchant” – one of his greatest talents was winning his subjects’ trust, alongside skilful editing that told the truth as he saw it from his liberal perspective.
He took a more observational approach for The Factory (1995), a five-part series about managementshop floor relations in a Liverpool manufacturing firm struggling for survival. Later, dispensing with camera operators and sound recordists, and shooting documentaries himself with small unobtrusive cameras, he made intensely personal portraits of people suffering health problems.
Rain in My Heart (2006), winner of a Grierson award, showed the decline of four alcoholic people, and switched between a hospital ward and their homes. It was a harrowing account as Watson explored their individual reasons for drinking. Two of them died, one of them having been filmed answering Watson’s questions only two days before his death, the other shown unconscious in his final hours. A new element introduced by Watson was his own pieces to camera justifying such probing into his subjects’ lives.
This issue had become more prominent in Malcolm & Barbara … A Love Story (1999), his account of one man’s descent into Alzheimer’s and the care he receives from a wife whom he scarcely recognises, which won the Royal Television
Society’s best documentary award. Eight years later, Watson was embroiled in controversy with the sequel, Malcolm & Barbara … Love’s Farewell. ITV’s advance publicity claimed it showed the pianist and former university lecturer Malcolm Pointon’s death when, in fact, he was last seen sinking into a coma three days beforehand. Watson’s insistence that he had never claimed to show Malcolm’s death was disputed by ITV – and, by the time it was broadcast, the documentary ended with his explanation of the truth.
Whatever the claims and counter-claims, Watson’s 11 years of filming the Pointons were testament to the commitment he showed to his subjects and his empathy for them.
Paul was born in London, to
Joan (nee Southwell) and Leslie Watson, a senior manager at the Courtaulds textile company. The family moved to Bolton, Lancashire (now in Greater Manchester), and he admitted to being a tearaway as a child but credited Altrincham grammar school with turning him around. He studied at the Royal College of Art in London (1963-66) and likened his documentary-making skills to those of painting.
“You put a colour next to a colour and they interact,” he said. “It’s the same with films, but you have to move things around with honesty to the subject, otherwise you might as well write a drama.”
In 1966, Watson joined the BBC as a researcher. After producing and directing episodes of Whicker’s World, he demonstrated his talent for representing the daily lives of ordinary people – from newlyweds to miners and a pop group – in A Year in the Life (1969-70), winner of a Society of Film & Television Arts award.
Elevated to executive producer in 1988, he commissioned BBC documentaries such as the Great Journeys series (1991) and, from 1993 to 1994, was editor of the 40 Minutes strand. His later films as a director included A Wedding in the Family (2000), which went beyond the marriage vows to delve into the lives of all the family members, and The Queens’ Wedding (2002), about drag queens and a gay wedding.
Bafta presented its special award to Watson in 2008. He wrote and directed three plays for BBC Radio 4 in 2008 and 2009, including How Now TV, a satire on reality television.
Watson’s two marriages, to Carol Butcher (1964) and Barbara Wijngaard (1981), both ended in divorce. He is survived by Rebecca, the daughter of his first marriage, and Dan and Tom, the twin sons of the second. Another son Ben, from his first marriage, predeceased him. Anthony Hayward
Stephen Paul Brooke Watson, film-maker and producer, born 17 February 1942; died 18 November 2023