Television: The ‘fun’ dad who wrecked his family

Remember when you were a kid and it always seemed like other kids had it better? If I’d gone to the Shanks family’s house for tea, I probably would’ve refused to go home. Paul and Vikie Shanks, a cabaret singer and a model, bought a big patch of land near Coventry and raised their seven children like a latter-day Swiss Family Robinson. The children loved their father: he was a fun dad. Hours of video footage show him organising games, always pushing them to have more and more “fun”. Only an adult would spot the signs of mania and obsession. When his family stopped entertaining him and threatened to leave, Paul planned to kill them all. He didn’t go through with it. Instead he wandered into a wood and slit his own throat.

The Kingdom of Us (Netflix) picks up the story many years later, as the family struggles to move on. Some of the children know their late father was dangerous; the younger ones still miss him. They argue over his memory, while mother Vikie sits stoically in the middle, trying to keep things as normal as possible. Four of her children have autism, one has dyslexia and two have cerebral palsy. For all they’ve been through, they are remarkably sane, and the way that they live in and out of each other’s pockets, rowing with honesty and affection, they seem healthier than many families that claim to be happy. The documentary is desperately, quietly sad – yet even now a part of me would move in with the Shankses given half a chance.

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend another Netflix series called The Expanse, a space opera set in a future in which Earth and Mars square off in a new cold war. There’s talk of it being politically relevant to the Trump era, which I honestly can’t see, but it’s certainly tautly plotted and well acted, with a stand-out performance by the Iranian refugee actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. We actually inhabit a golden age of TV sci-fi that will probably put the reality of interplanetary travel, when it finally arrives, to shame. Unlike contemporary astronauts, no one in this version of the future has to urinate weightlessly into a bottle.