Reading played a central role in the history of ‘reality-style’ television in 1974 and this week’s Bygones takes a look back at this ground-breaking series called “The Family”.

The BBC had decided to film a household somewhere in Britain and Margaret Wilkins and her daughter Marian,from Whitley Street,replied to an advert in the Reading Chronicle 44 years ago,hoping to take part.

Bygones has talked exclusively to Marian about the whole story and some ‘off camera’ moments that have never been told.

Marian,nineteen at the time,was at the centre of things and she explains:”Mum and I replied to the advert in the Chronicle,which set out some criteria such as ages of the children etc-then they chose us we were all very excited-but we didn’t understand the enormity of it all.”

The BBC producers chose the Wilkins,who lived in the centre of Reading,then followed them (initially without film in their cameras) during the next few months,eventually filming the ups and downs of their daily lives.

The first inkling that Chronicle readers got of what was coming was contained in a press release from the ‘beeb’,which announced that the thirteen-week series would soon be on their screens.

The paper also published group photo of the family,but after the show aired from 3rd April 1974,nothing would ever be quite the same for the Wilkins,or television programming.

Marian continued:”Paul Watson,the BBC’s producer was very helpful,he gave us some good advice and I am sure a lot of the awful letters they received against the show were not passed on to us.”

What followed (in 12 weekly episodes) divided local and UK television viewers alike,as many were shocked to see an ‘fly on the wall’ style programme for the very first time.

Some scenes were partly ‘faked’-in a style mimicked by reality television today-such as the moment the Marian’s young brother Christopher,was ‘told’ that Terry (dad) was not actually his biological father.

When Marian’s wedding day arrived the whole ceremony was engulfed with media interest,Marian explained:”There were hundreds of people in the road the Police could not get them to move away..

She continued:”We honeymooned on the Isle of Wight,but were recognised everywhere as our photo was on the front page of every Sunday newspaper.It took ages to get around because they all wanted our autograph-we even had to leave the cinema-as once we were seen nobody watched the film!”

The ‘rock-star’ fame that was sparked by the series,cut short Marian and Tom’s honeymoon,so they came home early,because:”Reading was the safest place for us!”

Self-styled watchdog of the nation’s morals,Mary Whitehouse,did predictably object to the series and Reading’s two MP’s also waged a campaign to get “The Family” off the air.

Local MP Tony Durant did knock on their door once,but Marian thinks this coincided with his own general election campaign.

To try and get the truth about the Wilkins ‘out there’,Margaret published her own book called “A Family Affair” in 1975 (it is now out of print),but apparently if you want a copy it will set you back over £70.

For many years after the show was aired,Marian and her mother,would be constantly recognised around the town and she explains:”Many people would come up to us and say nice things-but there were just as many who would point and whisper to each other.”

She continued:”My mother was a very strong lady (passing away in 2008) and would always say that we should not worry about what strangers say-it was more important what our friends and family thought-because that was based on the truth!”

Marian revealed that she does watch a small number of ‘reality shows’ today,but with her inside knowledge of how they are put together she gives most of them a wide berth.

The BBC did win many awards for “The Family” and it spawned a variety of spin-off shows,but the Wilkins did not have the chance to capitalise on their success because Equity (the actors union) would not give them an ‘Equity Card’.

It was even rumoured that they were asked to appear in several TV adverts-one involving a well-known breakfast cereal.

The series was repeated in 1984 and it is viewable on social media but Marian does admit:”I watched it last year,that was the first time since mum died,I love seeing my grandparents (who made a few brief appearances).We are lucky to have such a detailed record of us all,most people just have a few faded photographs,or wobbly home videos,we have a whole section of our lives!”