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Family fortunes

Can the revival of this fly-on-the-wall classic succeed in the 21st century?

<strong>The Family</s

Who, in the age of Big Brother, will stick with a fly-on-the-wall show about a family, the Hugheses of Kent, who agreed to be filmed 24 hours a day for nearly four months? Not many people, I bet. In 1974, when Paul Watson first made a documentary called The Family, we were all such innocents (and if I sound longing here, that's because I am). In those days, the sight of a real woman rowing with her husband on television was alarmingly exciting.

Not any more. We are unshockable and undismayable, to the degree that George Galloway is still taken seriously in some quarters, even after the botty-hugging red Lycra suit and the washing of his imaginary whiskers with his imaginary paws. OK, not that seriously. But he's still in his job. The best this series can hope for is to act like a mirror: to reflect our lives back at us and stir up a bit of uncomfortable recognition.

So why has Channel 4 revisited the idea? I really don't know the answer to this, especially as what struck me most during part one (17 September, 9pm) was how little family life has changed in the past three decades. The Hugheses' rows are punctuated, and sometimes terminated, by the ring of their mobile phones, and they have more than one television set, but otherwise they could belong to any year from 1974 on.

Actually, that's not quite right. Jane, aka Mrs Hughes, was about to turn 40 as the series opened, a fact that was depressing her to the extent that she required her 14-year-old son to come into bed with her to give her cuddles. "I'm so old!" she kept wailing. "My skin's all soggy." This existential cry, at least, had the authentic whiff of 21st-century Britain about it: a society obsessed to the point of madness with how young a woman looks.

I like Jane, but she has the weary petulance - not to mention the cushion-strewn boudoir - of one who spends too much time poring over Grazia. There's also something feral about her. She is constantly on the point of full hibernation. Here's another difference between 1974 and now: most of us today have pretty warm houses, in spite of the current angst about fuel bills. Yet people like Jane spend half their lives in their dressing gowns, hiding beneath faux-fur throws. Calling all underemployed university psychologists: I'm sure there's a thesis in here, somewhere.

But back to our family. We have not been told what Jane and her husband, Simon, do for a living, which is mighty annoying. But we know they have four children - one, Jessica, who is grown up with a baby and who lives elsewhere, and three teenagers: Emily, 19, who likes going out; Charlotte, 17, who is "easygoing"; and Tom, "a typical teenager". I was confused by this last description because Tom is about as sweet and unmoody as they come; if his bedroom smells of socks and hormones, you wouldn't know it, to look at him.

It's Emily who is the typical teenager, a throbbing vessel of fury who plays nice for about five minutes a day. Great legs, though. Right now, the family is stuck in a pattern of which she is largely the architect, one that involves her parents using the old hotel line (as in: "You treat this house like a hotel") with tedious regularity.

Not that I blame them. Most nights, Emily goes out at midnight, returning in the small hours, and she only emerges from her bunk the next morning to ring in sick (she works in a shop). Her favourite mode of transport is the minicab, though once you see her heels, you know why: I've seen lower table legs.

All this stuff is as familiar as the cover of your favourite LP, unless you went to boarding school; I can't say it persuaded me to tune in next Wednesday. Still, I admit that when, after one telling-off, Emily babyishly sat on her mother's lap and burst into tears, I was seized by embarrassment - not at her antics, but my own. Emily, I know you. I was you, once, long ago. Only, for me, prowling the house in hankie-sized frocks was not an option. This was the north, before global warming, when radiators only got turned on at Christmas.

Pick of the week

MerlinStarts 20 September, 7.30pm, BBC1
The boy wizard arrives at Camelot. No, not the Lottery people.

Mona Lisa Curse
21 September, 6.30pm, Channel 4
Robert Hughes on why the contemporary art scene sucks.

Place of Execution
22 September, 9pm, ITV1
Juliet Stevenson stars in adaptation of Val McDermid's gripping thriller.

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 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party