in Frieze | 02 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

Family Fortunes

Fishtank, Richard Billingham's made-for-TV film, shows his family come to life

in Frieze | 02 JAN 99

With each new show of Richard Billingham's photographs, we get to know the Billingham family - Dad Ray, Mum Liz and younger brother Jason - better. We've become familiar with their Birmingham council flat too - the piles of stuff everywhere, the tide-marks of scum on the kitchen floor, the knick-knacks and ornaments, artificial-flower arrangements and wedding-dress doll on the window-sill. And with each new show we hanker for more of the story: did Liz ever finish that jigsaw, the one we last saw strewn over the carpet, a dazed Ray slouched among the pieces? What became of the kittens, the one Liz was feeding with an eye dropper? More importantly, has Ray begun to take the first of those 12 difficult steps recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous? Its just like the soaps, except we never do find out.

Things don't change. It doesn't matter. Fishtank, Billingham's made-for-TV film commissioned by Artangel, was shown on BBC2 in December. Verité documentaries - on the Opera House, London Zoo, life in the Australian suburbs, in hospitals and driving schools - have been popular for some years now. Billingham's video diary of his problem family is distinguished by its subjective eye, its focus, its details: it dwells on the details.

Here's Ray, glass in hand, mugging around the fishtank, with its Matisseian goldfish and burbling aerator. Ray's burbling too. The fish rise up through the bubbles, there are bubbles floating in Ray's glass and bubbles in his brain. 'Bobbles, eh? Gwarley aw mnnnah. Glearoywa one of them fushes wuz brought back to life ooaw, gfwa at buddy timpricha, bobbles an' that'.

The fish, stoical cold-blooded sorts, are pretty flexible when it comes to buddy timpricha, but the emotional temperature in the flat rises, along with all those bubbles and the evening fug, and the anger overflows. 'I've had bastard 'nough of you today.' says Liz, 'I don't like this kind of living, I don't.'

Some families are like this, even some that count themselves as happy. It's the sort of thing that gets said in the heat of the moment. When all the moments get glued together and they're all like this, that's when families count themselves unhappy. There seems nothing for it but for Liz to get out the family pet snake and let it glide gently through her hand, take a detour round her shoulder, and stretch its body into empty space, like a finger pointing. It is a very slender, elegant snake, a snake with class and backbone, things Ray seems to have lost, like a fiver down the back of the sofa. Liz is snatching a Cleopatra moment, and with this snake she'll come to no harm.

No Harm. Ray's solace, and his problem, lies neatly stacked in the fridge. Phhht goes the can. Bwrrp goes Ray. He gets pissed in seconds. Liz retreats into pet care, jigsaws and computer games. Richard has his camera, Richard disappears into looking. Innocent fun for Jason consists of cornering flies, with a bit of card in each hand: 'Distracting him with this one, getting him with that one' is the secret of his technique. Splat goes the fly against the panel door. Another gets it against the wallpaper. Jason rattles round the flat, a palpable explosion of humour and hormones and young man's angst. He turns up the music and even Ray has a singalong.

Fishtank. Fly on the wall. Life in a goldfish bowl. The symbols are crashingly obvious, but they're the only ones available. Later another fly comes to investigate the dribbly remains squashed on the door. We linger on it, just as we linger on Jason's downy chin, Liz's meaty hands as she holds a sandwich or spreads on the make up. The camera dwells on Ray's cavernous nostrils, his ratty hair, his knotty veins and sagging skin. The camera gets right up Ray's nose, but he doesn't seem to notice, or care. How come no one ever turns on Richard, says they've had bastard 'nough of him?

We catch a glimpse of a younger Ray in the family album, looking a lot like Brummie comedian Jasper Carrot. And photo-booth cameos of Liz with her teenage hairdo, laughing with her mates and smiling for the penny-in-the-slot cameraman against the pleated orange curtain. Out of the window there's the wind in the summer trees, the faint, cloud-flecked Midlands sky, the clatter of an unseen train running by. On the telly there's a nature film of underwater life on a coral reef, one of those crap, generic, satellite-TV nature documentaries with a dumb script. It turns the colour of the room blue with a TV glare. 'The reef is a paradise of bite-sized delights for the predators', says the upbeat commentator. The colours of the Billingham flat lurch from lurid puce to no-colour tan and dinge. Sometimes it goes all swimmy and out of focus. We're all predators here on the Billingham family reef.

Fishtank is the all-singing, all-dancing version of the photographs, with the sound turned up. You knew what it would be like - more extreme, more physical - everything is rubbed into your eyes and close-up, even the squashed fly. The point here is you are actually stuck in the flat with the Billinghams for 45 minutes, and it feels like half a lifetime. This is no social critique. More than anything the film is a book of hours, marked not by religious offices but by the cycles of Ray's illness (let's face it, it is an illness), his drunkenness and hangovers, and by the family's responses to it. It is painful to watch. You get the sense that life here is always much like this, unchanging in its cycles of edgy silences, bickering, bleary torpor, domestic rancour and occasional truces. And there is a brief tenderness, with Liz and Ray on the bed, Ray spruced and shaved and brushed-up for once, Liz' head on his lap. Maybe they're just catching their breath.