Gillian Wearing's film project Family History was commissioned in a unique collaboration between Film and Video Umbrella and Artists in the City, Reading Borough Council with the support of Film London Artists' Moving Image Network.
The work takes as its starting point the pioneering 1974 BBC fly-on-the wall documentary The Family and tracks the changing social fabric of two emblematic British cities through the eyes of two women.
The work simultaneously evokes life in the seventies, as experienced by both Heather Wilkins (the youngest daughter of the family who were the subject of the original series) and by the young Gillian Wearing (who watched it avidly in her front room in Birmingham). Family History was first shown, as an installation, at a new housing development in Reading, near to where the Wilkins lived and was subsequently exhibited at a similar location in Wearing's home town of Birmingham.
On the first of two video screens, Heather Wilkins is interviewed by daytime doyenne Trisha Goddard in the surrogate home-from-home of a replica TV studio. Assessing both the personal and the cultural influence of the programme, and how the ambitions of fly-on-the-wall documentary have been overtaken by 'reality TV' and its cultivation of celebrity, this footage is contrasted with observational scenes that prompt their own uncanny flashback to the Seventies, in which a stand-in for the young Gillian Wearing watches television in a recreation of the front room of her former family home.
Deftly mixing documentary portraiture and personal biography, Family History is a complex meditation on the changing face of British society, and television, over that time.
In November 2006 a special screening of Family History was held at the National Film Theatre. The event presented a reworked, single screen version of the piece and was followed by an informal panel discussion, with contributions from guest speakers TV presenter Trisha Goddard, writer and critic Paul Morley and curator Stuart Comer.
An article on Wearing's Family History installation can be read via the Guardian website.