This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 18 March 2017.
SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM: Thursday, BBC Four
MEET THE LORDS: Monday, BBC Two
In People Take Pictures of Each Other, the closing track from The Kinks’ classic Village Green Preservation Society album, Ray Davies strikes a typically ambiguous pose on the subject of sentimental family snapshots.
“People take pictures of the summer/Just in case someone thought they had missed it/Just to prove that they really existed.”
The makers of SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM missed a trick by neglecting to include Davies’ elegy on the soundtrack, as it neatly encapsulates the bittersweet theme of this warm, poignant documentary.
An engaging piece of social history viewed through the lens of ordinary British families, it examined our deep emotional need – our anxious desperation, some might argue – to freeze treasured memories in time. From cradle to grave, we document our lives as a way of creating narratives which, while not necessarily false as such, tend to favour happier moments.
Contributors included a couple who’ve amassed 20,000 images of their lives together over the last fifty years, plus a proud father who snapped a portrait of his son every day from the moment he was born until his 21st birthday. Having attracted 6.5 million views on YouTube, they’ve vowed to continue their obsessive project by each taking a daily selfie for the rest of their lives.
Despite its celebratory surface, the programme couldn’t disguise the nagging undercurrent of sadness one sometimes gets from revisiting more innocent, carefree times. That Proustian rush of nostalgia is a double-edged sword.
There’s something uniquely evocative about the sunshine captured in faded Polaroid snapshots, especially when it beams upon loved ones who’ve since passed away. These images trigger powerful memories, which often help families to deal with personal loss.
My only issue with this otherwise charming programme was its unquestioningly positive assessment of our modern digital age, in which amateur photographers seemingly never stop sharing fragments of their lives online.
While the immediacy of smartphone technology has its benefits, it stops people from living in the moment – put down your phones and absorb your surroundings! - while encouraging tedious narcissists to wallow in the mistaken belief that every detail of their existence is profoundly interesting.
What’s the point of a life defined, not by experience and memory, but by the number of ‘likes’ it received on Instagram and FaceBook?
As Davies’ warbled presciently in 1968: “Don’t show me no more, please…”
The final episode of MEET THE LORDS, an observational documentary offering unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to our hallowed gravy train of unelected peers, reminded me that Black Rod has the sweetest gig in Westminster.
He’s only really called into service – and I use that term loosely – during the state opening of Parliament. So what does this liquorice-legged layabout do for the rest of the year?
If the aim of this series was to cement the dispiriting image of Britain as an absurd nation governed by privileged clowns in liveried robes – they look like desiccated Time Lords - then it was an unqualified success.
The failure of the House to reform itself from within was laughably exposed when the outgoing Lord Speaker abandoned her investigation into outrageous expenses claims, as she felt her findings would cause an embarrassing scandal. This is a woman who, during her five years in office, spent £4,000 of taxpayers’ money on flowers for her office.
Strange, isn’t it, that these inveterate scroungers – Britain’s worst by far – are never held to account in the benefits-bashing pages of The Daily Mail?