The British Family

Rachel Cooke finds Kirsty Young in a rather studious mood

I think we can probably blame David Kynaston for the BBC's new documentary series, The British Family (BBC2). Over at "factual", someone has obviously noted the success of his chronicles of postwar Britain and thought: "Let's bag ourselves some of that action." In principle, I'm all for this. What Kynaston makes one realise is how much the stories of private individuals - the middle-aged man from Keighley, the old lady from Dorking - enrich the texture of history, and in what sly and witty ways. So, combine good interviews with excellent editing, add all the monochrome virtues of the BBC's own archive and, by rights, you should have a winner on your hands.

Yet, somehow, The British Family does not quite hit the mark. If it was on BBC4, its producers would have limited themselves to a faceless narrator, or they would have asked an expert - perhaps even Kynaston himself, who is cute in a troglodytic historian kind of a way - to present it. But the series goes out on BBC2, where viewers cannot, apparently, be trusted to concentrate for more than five minutes without catching reassuring sight of someone famous: in this case, Kirsty Young. I have nothing against Young. She is smart, handsome and has a voice that sounds like expensive tweed. Here, however, she is a giant distraction. I kept wondering who does her eyeshadow.

It's not only that Young is on screen too much: joshing with people in their homes, furiously nodding her head as old ladies confess the misery of what once passed for their sex lives (at one point, we are even treated to a reflection of her face in a coffee table). Her director has also decided to turn her into, if not Kynaston in heels, then the chief researcher on her own series. We regularly see her furiously making notes at her kitchen table, surrounded by old sociology Pelicans and flowers. It's as if she's studying for a PhD or something. Only PhD students can't usually stretch to fresh tulips. So it's phony as well as ludicrous.

I wouldn't mind if the stuff that the real researchers had tracked down wasn't so interesting. But the first programme, about marriage in the 1950s and 1960s, is full of the most cherishable interviewees, all cut far too short: Joan Melling, who tells of how, after the war, one married and felt the "trapdoor" shut ("I'm bored, bored, bored!" she wrote in a letter to a women's writing group); Marion McMillan, who movingly describes how she was forced to give birth to her first child in a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers (she stayed there for a year, far from home, full of shame and loneliness, during which time she received just one letter from her family); and Andrew Wiseman, who cheerfully describes the rules laid down by his wife, Jean, over his affairs (the girls in question were required, among other things, to live outside a 100-mile radius; Jean and Andrew's marriage lasted 58 years and ended only with her death).

Even better, there is Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail and her husband, Michael Fletcher, who have been married since 1969. Hee. What fun. Fletcher, in an attempt to explain just how tricky premarital sex used to be, tells an anecdote about how - before he met Ann, obviously - he took a young lady to a hotel. Through her caterpillar lashes, Leslie shoots him a look. "Was that Blousy Blonde?" she asks. Fletcher looks mildly embarrassed, but ploughs gamely on. The hotelier, guessing that he and this young woman were not married, sent them rudely out into the night. Leslie pulls a tart face: this was hardly surprising, she says, given Blousy Blonde's appearance. These days, she then explains, her husband is content to come into contact with no other living beings save for his wife, his daughter and the family's cats. Oh where, I wonder, is Blousy Blonde now? Someone should have asked. David Kynaston would have asked. He would have tracked Blousy Blonde down, and got her to describe, in intimate detail, the contents of her vanity case and of her heart.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power