Filmmaker James Barnett has spent 15 years documenting two iconic personalities: his parents
The charming project has blown up on TikTok and follows the filmmaker’s parents going about their daily lives – from TV watching to trifle eating.
- Olivia Hingley
- 24 August 2023
If you’re a regular on TikTok, you might have had the pleasure of stumbling across one of James Barnett’s videos. They focus on the daily lives of his two parents, their charming relationship and their idiosyncrasies – from lunches spent eating a massive trifle to bemused pre-Glastonbury preparations. Brimming with humour and warmth, the videos also highlight the differences between generations, how quickly the world seems to change before the eyes of so many, and the importance of preserving precious memories.
The project began about 15 years ago somewhat by “accident”. James was studying at Central Saint Martins, and recording and photographing his daily life became a coping strategy for his “bewildering” early 20s. “Documenting my experiences helped me to process what was going on, and editing granted me full control over the narrative,” he says. During this time, he showed one of his tutors, Peter Bond, an interview he had shot with his mum and dad, after which Peter told James to “never stop recording”.
Unlike many, James says that he enjoys hanging out with his parents, with their time spent together often ending up in laughter. His parents met at a church choir during the 1950s, married and had a “massive” family of nine children, of which James is the youngest. Being the youngest James spent a lot of one-on-one time with his parents, where he began to recognise their “little quirks of daily routines”. On top of this, with such a large age gap between him and his parents, the generational differences were always stark. “They live in a way that I don’t think I will ever live my own life – I’m a gay, nomadic, would-be artist.” James says. “They delight in telling me that I don’t live in the real world, but perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I don’t live in their world.”
James’ process is what he describes as “haphazard”. With his parents’ behaviour being quite unpredictable, he’s come to learn that it’s always best to have a disposable camera or camcorder close by. Luckily, his parents are pretty un-phased by the camera or, in James’ words, remaining “unapologetically authentic”. Once a moment is recorded, James will sit on the footage and “forget”, before cutting it all together and adding subtitles. It’s a very time-consuming process, James says, due to the heavy editing process, but one that’s always worth it. “People have commented that the videos have something of a Mike Leigh to them,” James says, “But in all honesty, I’m a child of the early 2000s, my biggest inspirations are Big Brother and the Royle family!”
While the mundane everyday moments that pepper the videos – eating dinner, watching TV, cleaning or watching birds – provide the vast majority of scenes, James says that the best content usually arises when something disrupts his parents. In his most popular video on TikTok, James’ parents have decided to stay in his London flat, instead of booking a hotel to celebrate their 50th anniversary. The stay led to what James describes as “an onslaught of judgement on city living”, with topics switching from single-living, parking to drive-thrus. In another, James prepares for a weekend at Glastonbury, with his mum reluctantly giving him one of her towels – though not one of her white and pink bath towels (of course).
The response James has received to his videos since posting them on TikTok has been overwhelming. On why he thinks they’ve done so well, he assumes that the fast-paced, ‘disposable’ format of the platform suits the low-fi nature of his work. What’s more, the app has a pretty large soft spot for endearing personalities, making his parents the perfect stars. Of the (many) effusive comments he’s received, a few stand out – one being high praise of ‘Better than the Kardashians!’. James shared the video on Instagram with the caption ‘More from my inconsequential archive’, to which the writer Russel T Davies commented, ‘That’s not inconsequential, that’s beautiful. And joyous. Oh the laughter!’. “I feel like that’s a pretty perfect summation of this accidental project,” ends James.
GalleryCopyright © James Barnett
Copyright © James Barnett
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.