The serial originally focused on the Hart and Gates family and some of their friends and close associates living in the fictional outer London suburb of Charnham. The Hart family consisted of parents Chris (Ian Ashpitel) and Annie (Liz Crowther) and their four children, ladies' man Duncan (Rocky Marshall), Duncan's twin, the confused 24-year-old virgin and trainee solicitor Holly (Sandra Huggett), police constable Melanie (Cordelia Bugeja), and schoolboy Jamie (Michael Cole).
Chris and Annie's parents were also featured. After losing his wife, Sally (Jean Heywood) in the opening episodes, Chris' father Angus (Ian Cullen) came to live with the Hart family. Annie's parents who lived nearby were the staunchly conservative Elsa Gates (Delena Kidd) and philandering Jack (Ken Farrington).
Other original characters were Chris's partner in their building business, Nick Trip (Barry McCormick), Melanie's bubbly best friend Claire Toomey (Tina Hall), Annie's baby-obsessed best friend Maria Callan (Annie Miles), and Duncan's loyal drinking partners Tim Webster (Idris Elba) and Roy (Miles Petit).
The action took place in a series of modern, middle-class suburban houses and spacious apartments whose geographic relation to one another was not clearly defined by the series. The primary meeting place for characters was the slick and modern bar restaurant The Lock located in Charnham's picturesque riverside marina district. The expansive parklands and forested areas of Charnham Common were also frequently visited by characters.
Later in 1997, Maria's ex-husband, the callous Pete Callan, appeared in town. Pete, played by ex-Brookside actor David Easter, provided the series with a much-needed villain, and he quickly became the show's standout character, eventually marrying Claire, who had been deserted by Duncan after giving birth to his twin children. Another early arrival was the sassy bisexual Susie Ross (Tina Landini), who took a job at The Lock and romanced both Duncan and his twin sister Holly. Nick's troublesome teenage son Liam (Stephen Hoyle) arrived, and neighbourhood nosey parker Bill Cockerill (Roger Sloman) and his wife Samantha (Tessa Wyatt) would make several appearances.
In the show's storyline, Liam became involved in a post office robbery. His lawyer was Pamela Hargreaves (Sandy Hendrickse), and she soon embarked on a romance with Liam's father, Nick. Meanwhile, Pete bought The Lock, further cementing his importance to the series. Entrepreneur Peter Stringfellow even made a guest appearance in one episode.
By mid-1998, the programme's middling ratings prompted the show's makers to drastically revamp the series. Brian Park, famous for his overhaul of ITV's Coronation Street, which included the controversial writing-out of several long standing characters including Derek Wilton, was appointed as Family Affairs' new producer and was tasked with remodelling the series. It was decided that the majority of the regular characters would be written out – including all members of Hart and Gates families who formed the basis of the serial.
Through 1998, Tim, Susie and Liam departed, and the recurring Cockerill family was phased out. Pamela's romance with Nick developed and her mother, the lovable but meddling gossip Sadie Hargreaves (Barbara Young), entered the storyline. Lovable rogue Dave Matthews (Richard Hawley), his brassy, shameless, chain-smoking wife Cat (Nicola Duffett), and Dave's son from an earlier marriage, Josh Matthews (Terry Burns) moved in. Dave was an extramarital love interest for Annie Hart, before falling in love with her daughter Holly.
Also introduced was the strident owner of the local mini supermarket Dusty McHugh (Doreen Ingleton), her mouthy daughter Yasmin (Ebony Thomas) and her conscientious son Benji (Junior Laniyan). They lived in a flat above their shop. An adjacent flat was occupied by students Declan Byrne (Quentin Jones), Gabby Johnson (Emma Linley) and Clive Starr (Huw Bevan). Clive's older brother Dudley Starr, also known as Serge Pompidou, (David Verrey) became the new chef at The Lock.
Yasmin, known for her ostentatious facial piercings, quickly started a relationship with Josh Matthews. The plain and pudgy Clive was revealed to viewers as gay and secretly in love with hunky flatmate Declan. Serge embarked on a romance with Maria Callan and they were soon married. Another staff member of The Lock was vapid barmaid Siobhan Jones (Jemma Walker). Seen initially in a support role on only a recurring basis, Siobhan would soon develop into one of the show's main characters and later became the third Mrs Pete Callan.
In late 1998, Jack crashed his car on an isolated road while driving drunk. His wife Elsa, the only passenger, was knocked unconscious in the crash. Jack placed her in the driver's seat before anyone arrived on the scene and blamed her for the crash. Elsa suffered amnesia and during her subsequent recuperation Jack kept her isolated from family, fearing their support or inquiries could trigger the return of her memory or uncover the truth. When Elsa's memory began to return Jack murdered her by smothering her with a pillow. A vengeful Jack changed his will to make the Hart family's nemesis Pete Callan chief beneficiary and committed suicide by gassing himself in his car.
Then on 29 January 1999, the entire Hart family (except for Duncan, who had already left the series) was killed. After Roy and Melanie's wedding, the Harts conducted a small reception on their river boat. After Roy left the boat to retrieve a hangover cure for Jamie, a fallen candle ignited leaking gas. The resultant explosion killed all on board.
Immediately, the show's theme tune and opening titles were revamped. The titles reflected the serial's new direction: they now deployed flashes of a tube journey to Charnham Station, linking Charnham with the city of London. Over this, shots of the new characters introduced over preceding weeks were shown.
Roy suffered emotional trauma after the loss of his wife Melanie, and kidnapped her best mate Claire Callan, threatening to kill her. After her rescue, she left Charnham. Roy eventually recovered.
Serge and Maria Callan were married and she soon announced her pregnancy, while refusing to let her husband Serge anywhere near her or to even share the same bed for many months. She was actually faking the pregnancy and wearing a cushion under her dress. Disguised by a dark wig, Maria eventually stole a baby from a maternity hospital, bringing it home and attempting to pass it off as her own child. The truth quickly came out and the baby promptly returned to its real parents, who chose to not press charges.
Pamela defended new client Simon Thornton (Valentine Pelka) who was accused of rape. She was convinced of his innocence so didn't fully investigate his background. She later learned he had kept vital facts about previous convictions from her. Realising he was guilty she dropped the case and resigned from her job, but he started stalking her. Pamela accidentally killed Simon with an iron during a confrontation at his home. Fearing her claims of self-defence would not be believed, she enlisted Sadie's help in burying Simon's body on Charnham Common. Racked with guilt for several months, Pamela and Sadie exhibited strange behaviour which puzzled Pamela's fiancé Nick.
Nick and Pamela later married at The Lock. The marriage was short-lived: Simon's body was found and Pamela was arrested and imprisoned for murder. Pamela took full blame and insisted Sadie had not assisted; Sadie wasn't charged and remained in Charnham. Nick soon left town after this.
Benjie McHugh began a love affair with his married teacher Maggie Roswell (Robyn Moore). They eventually went on the run together with Maggie's two sons. Maggie was ultimately killed in a car accident while fleeing.
Clive Starr accepted that Declan was straight and there could be no romance between them. Clive started a romance with Adam Sheldrake (Vince Leigh). Adam was revealed a policeman who was in the closet, fearing that being bisexual could affect his career. Adam's ex-wife and daughter showed up. Adam started an affair with Clive's flatmate Gabby, which the ex-wife tried to break up.
Siobhan Callan's sister Julie-Ann Jones arrived and started a romantic pursuit of Pete Callan. This ended with the revelation that Pete was actually her father.
For several months, after the revamp, the existing locations of Maria Starr's flat, Pete Callan's flat, the marina and The Lock continued to be featured. Dave and Cat lived in the former Gates residence. Despite the new tube station opening sequence, the occasionally seen exterior shots of the show's locales along with brief glimpses of Sadie's home and the frequently visited Charnham Common suggested that Charnham was a modern, green, and spacious small town.
New characters continued to be added to the series, with the Derwin family, comprising the censorious Fern Derwin (Belinda Sinclair) her easy-going taxi-driver husband Max (Nick Stringer) and their rebellious foster son Arlo Dean (Ash Newman), joining the storyline. The Derwins soon fostered the troubled and sensitive Gemma Craig (Angela Hazeldine) who had recently lost her entire family. Meanwhile, Josh Matthews pursued a singing career, enlisting a manager (played by Jonathan Coleman making a guest appearance) and recording a CD, which didn't sell.
Throughout the rest of 1999 and 2000, the departures of Claire Callan, Nick Trip and then Maria Starr left Roy Farmer as the show's only remaining original character. Pamela Trip and Serge Starr had also departed, while Dusty McHugh moved to Jamaica, leaving Yasmin and Benji – and the shop – in the care of her sister-in-law Pearl McHugh (Doña Croll). Dusty returned briefly for a Christmas visit before returning to Jamaica. She was later killed, off camera, in a car accident there.
Six months after his introduction, Max Derwin died of a heart attack during an argument with Arlo Dean. Max's widow Fern discovered that he had an illegitimate son, Maxwell, from a relationship with another woman, living in a nearby town. Max had left him everything.
Claire returned to the series in 2000, hardened by her disastrous marriage to ex-husband Pete. She was without her twins, who now lived with her sister.
In 2000, coinciding with the introduction of the Warrington family, the geographic focus of the series was redefined as being on Stanley Street in the fictitious W15 postal district of West London. Previously, the specific location of Charnham had never been explicitly stated; it was known to be close to a river, and characters sometimes travelled to Maidenhead. With the late-1998 infusion of new characters, it was established Dusty and her children lived over their minimarket and that in the next door flat were students Declan, Gabby and Clive. Now, we would see action regularly extend to the shop's street exterior and the surrounding buildings, and this location was revealed to be the bustling Stanley Street with its row of narrow shopfronts and terraced houses. Just as Roy was establishing his new Internet café business, next door to Yasmin's mini-supermarket, the Warringtons moved in across the street. Roy came to live in the street as well, and when Pete Callan sold The Lock to buy old-style pub, The Black Swan, this too was revealed to be on the same short street.
In quick succession, any regular characters not already living there soon moved into Stanley Street, while Sadie's home was inexplicably shifted there without her having to move house. After this, the various locations seen earlier in the series – such as The Lock and the marina – would not be seen again. Alongside Yasmin's minimarket and the newly opened Internet café, The Black Swan would become one of the show's primary meeting places: despite the fact that its landlord, the villainous Pete Callan, was openly hated by most of the show's characters, they still all followed him to become regulars at his new pub. From now on, most outdoor taping was on the outdoor Stanley Street set, reducing the number of time-consuming location shoots while confining much of the action to the one street.
Many storylines revolved around Pete Callan and his various crimes, schemes, and love affairs. Meanwhile, the large group of younger characters in the series went through a series of romances and break-ups. The newly introduced Warrington family became key figures in the show's on-going storylines. Nikki Warrington (Rebecca Blake) endured marriage problems and problems with her large blended family which also consisted of her doctor husband Andrew (Simon Cook), his children Luke (Royce Cronin) and Sara (Beth Cordingly), and Nikki's children Becky (Chandra Reugg) and Darren (Joe Fox, later Ike Hamilton) from her previous marriage to Adrian Scott (Ariyon Bakare), who was at the time serving a prison sentence.
Nikki became embroiled in scandal when she embarked upon an affair with her stepson Luke. This major storyline was played alongside that of Pete Callan's latest misdemeanour – framing new wife Siobhan for the murder of Dave's son Josh. Siobhan had struck a blow to a suspected burglar in the darkened kitchen upstairs at the pub, where she lived with Pete, before realising the "burglar" was merely barman Josh Matthews.
Siobhan falsely believed that her blow to Josh had killed him, when it merely knocked him unconscious. Pete, who was on the scene in seconds and who had a deep-seated enmity with Josh and Josh's father Dave, secretly delivered the deadly blow after Siobhan left the room in terror. Siobhan was quickly arrested and sent to prison.
In 2001, the Warrington clan was extended to include their relatives, the Webb and Ellis families, comprising Nikki's brother Matt Ellis (Matthew Jay Lewis), his girlfriend Karen Ellis (Tanya Franks) and Karen's brothers Jim (Joe Dow) and Paul Webb (Martin Delaney). Young rebel Paul Webb had many clashes with other characters and broke up the relationship between Benji and Gemma.
Meanwhile, with their storylines gradually dwindling, the characters of Gabby Johnson and Clive Starr quietly departed. Their places in their flat were taken by a succession of attractive young residents, including Polly Arnold (Juliet Cowan) and the bossy Dr Tanya Ayuba (Laila Rouass). Polly romanced Declan Byrne but when her brother Gavin Arnold (Neil Roberts) arrived in town, she resumed her illicit love affair with him. A disgusted Declan ended his romance with Polly and left Charnham. In other developments, the establishment of a youth refuge on the street angered some residents, however, Roy Farmer soon became a highly involved volunteer on the project.
Jim Webb became Cat Matthews's reluctant second husband. Meanwhile, Paul Webb paired up with Gemma Craig, who continued to live with her well-meaning but increasingly meddlesome foster mother Fern. Fern had married Roy's father Vince (Stephen Yardley). Karen embarked upon a controversial lesbian affair with her child's surrogate mother, Sadie's niece from Australia Kelly Hurst (Nicky Talacko). This storyline also featured the brief appearance of Kelly's father and Sadie's brother-in-law Barry, portrayed by Tony Booth. At Christmas Paul Webb discovered that Jim was not his brother, but his father.
In 2002, Cat Webb's niece Geri (Anna Acton) moved to Stanley Street. The troubled Davenport family moved into the flat originally occupied by Declan, Gabby and Clive. The mother Ginny (Joanna Foster) was recovering from a severe bout of depression while husband Robert (Brian Cowan) worked to launch a catering business on Stanley Street. Their three teenage children were Jessica (Sammy Glenn), Cameron (Rupert Hill) and Lewis (Sam Stockman). They were soon joined by Robert's much younger adoptive brother Jude Davenport, openly despised by Ginny, Cameron and Lewis, after he had romantically pursued Jessica.
Cameron Davenport and Paul Webb became close friends until Paul learned of Cameron's brief affair with his fiancée Gemma. A furious Paul left Gemma at the altar and left Charnham for a brief period.
Charlotte Day (Leanne Lakey) arrived and began working at the Black Swan and quickly became a love interest of local villain Pete Callan. She was later joined by her younger sister Lucy (Julia Lee Smith), and their mother Eileen (Rosie Rowell). After Charlotte's departure, Eileen and Lucy continued in the series, becoming involved in several highly dramatic events. Eileen soon became Pete Callan's fourth wife after his divorce from Siobhan.
Peter England joined as Ben Galloway who lived in the half way house and worked in Roy Farmer's café. Ben's storyline progressed to a point where Ben admitted his was gay and embarked upon a stormy relationship. Ben shared the first gay kiss on British daytime TV.
Yasmin and Benji's Aunt Pearl moved away. A guilt-racked Siobhan Callan endured prison and a lengthy court case after being framed by Pete for Josh's murder. She was eventually released and returned to Charnhan where she and others slowly began to piece the truth together. However nothing could be proved and her ex-husband Pete got away with the crime of murdering Josh. Siobhan left town in 2002 after Pete caused a car crash that killed Kate Matherson (Mary Stockley) and injured Siobhan.
Robert Davenport had a one-night stand with Geri, after which she accused him of rape. He went to trial but was acquitted. The stresses led to the break-up of his marriage. Wife Ginny moved to France, taking daughter Jessica with her. Jude Davenport also moved away.
In September 2003, another drastic cast revamp occurred as new series producer Alison Davis arrived, presented with the task of finally getting viewing figures up to an acceptable standard.
Original character Claire Callan left Charnham after a long return stint. Martin Delaney who played Paul Webb left the series to take a role in New Zealand serial Shortland Street. Following Paul's departure all members of the related Webb, Warrington and Ellis families were gradually written out.
Robert Davenport and co-worker Fern Farmer were killed when a runaway car ploughed into the shopfront of Robert's catering business. The driver was Dave's recently arrived stepson Jake Walker (Seb Castang) who lost control of the stolen car during a police chase, following a botched deal by Gabriel Drummond. The biggest casualty of Davis's arrival was the show's only remaining original character to have appeared continuously for the entire run of the series, Roy Farmer, who was killed in a fire in his Internet café business.
These departures left just a handful of old characters on board, with Pete, Sadie, Yasmin, Cat and the returning Dave as the only pre-2002 characters remaining in the show (Pete had joined in 1997, the others in late-1998). Pete was now the show's longest-serving character. Pete and Eileen married, however she had actually married him for strategic reasons in a long-term plan for revenge.
Eileen, in league with the sinister Mike Shaw (Tony O'Callaghan), had set the fire in the Internet café that killed Roy. It was done in an attempt to frame Pete for arson. No one knew Roy was inside when the fire was set and when Pete was arrested for setting the fire the charge was arson and murder. Pete was sent to prison on remand and was absent from the series for many months, seen in only a few isolated episodes where other characters visited him in prison. He eventually returned to the storyline with his trial. Pete was acquitted and returned to Charnham and to running the pub with Eileen, who had become licensee while he was in custody.
On Pete's first day back, one of his tasks was to dispose of the body of Mike Shaw. In an incident, somewhat similar to the death of Josh Matthews, Mike was accidentally killed by Pete's stepdaughter Lucy Day upstairs at the pub, after he had tried to rape Eileen. Sam Taylor (Leon Ockenden), Eileen's son from a previous relationship with Mike, arrived. Pete secretly learned that Eileen and Mike had set the fire in an attempt to frame him for arson, and he plotted a slow and satisfying revenge against Eileen.
Another series of new characters were brought in to remould Family Affairs once again. Gary Costello (Gary Webster) was a businessman who lost his fortune in a failed business deal, and was forced to move from a more salubrious area in Chigwell, Essex to the comparatively modest Stanley Street, much to the shame and embarrassment of his snobbish, socialite wife Chrissy (Kazia Pelka). Their daughters, teenager Melanie (Rebecca Hunter) and Chloe (Leah Coombes), were more concerned about leaving behind their school friends. They were later joined by Gary's dependable mother Myra (Kate Williams).
The fractious Boulter family opened a restaurant on the site of Roy's destroyed café. Moody, judgemental Les Boulter and his nurturing wife Denise harboured a secret about a long-ago affair. Their son Brendan was a closeted bisexual; their teenage daughter was the bright Kelly. Also moving in was nurse Tanya Woods (Carol Starks) and her gay best friend Sean Steel (Sam Barriscale). Doug MacKenzie (Gareth Hale) became Cat Webb's third husband, while his womanising son Marc (Michael Wildman; later Graham Bryan) married Yasmin. Doug's younger son and Marc's half-brother Justin (Ryan Davenport) provided comic relief as the local clown, but no one was laughing when his fling with Kelly Boulter led to an unplanned pregnancy. Kelly went on to have the child, and the couple began living together.
With the new cast members in place storylines in 2004, focused on the new characters through several major storylines. During one of the many marital upsets that characterised the Costello household, daughter Chloe retreated upstairs and rifled through older sister Melanie's possessions, finding a stash of MDMA. She took several of the pills which made her ill. Hospital tests revealed the source of the illness, but also suggested she might also have cancer, and further tests were ordered. In the public outpouring of sympathy and support for the family, Chrissie finally found acceptance in the neighbourhood. When tests showed Chloe did not have cancer, Chrissie failed to report this fact, convincing Chloe to maintain a pretence of illness as a "little game". Unfortunately, the lie took hold, leading to many months of Chrissie deceiving the community and her own family, convincing everyone that Chloe was undergoing chemotherapy. When Eileen Callan saw them out shopping when Chloe was purportedly in hospital, and after picking up on other hints, she voiced her suspicion that Chrissie was faking Chloe's illness. Eileen was ostracised by the community for several weeks, with no one believing her. Chrissie's pretence continued several more weeks until a suspicious Tanya removed Chloe's bandages to reveal that there were no injection wounds at all.
Tanya herself was pregnant to her gay best friend and flatmate Sean: as platonic friends with little prospect of parenthood presenting itself, they planned to become parents together and Tanya had undergone in vitro fertilisation. Brendan Boulter would soon become engaged to Melanie Costello and go on to marry her, while conducting an affair with Sean. Denise Boulter had been largely ostracised by her outraged daughter and husband after the truth about her long-ago affair with Caleb came to light. However, they eventually reconciled their differences, although Brendan would leave town to escape his own problems.
Gary and Chrissy's marriage had faltered, leading to their separation, but the family endured its lowest ebb when Chloe Costello was sexually abused by a family friend, Bradley Foster (Harry Capehorn). The Boulter's marriage was again tested when Denise was raped by an unseen assailant. She later accused local taxi driver Graham Harker (Lee Warburton) of the crime, despite a total lack of evidence, and the Boulter family began hounding him, seeking revenge. Graham started a romance with Melanie who became his sole supporter.
Gary and Chrissy Costello reconciled and Gary proposed on Christmas Eve 2004. Melanie had earlier refused to attend their remarriage ceremony due to clashes with her parents over her relationship with Graham; on the day of the ceremony Melanie learned that their suspicions had been correct and that he was a dangerous rapist. Her absence was actually due to his holding her captive in his flat. Melanie was able to enlist Denise's help escaping from Graham. These events would see him brought to justice, however repercussions from these events would also lead to the Boulter's marriage disintegrating, and Les and Denise both left Charnham.
At The Black Swan the psychotic Trish Wallace (Gabrielle Glaister) emerged a recurring villain capable of rivalling even Pete Callan. An unnerved Eileen was being blackmailed by someone who threatened to reveal to her husband Pete that Eileen herself had framed him for arson. Pete in fact knew this already and he and Eileen endured several tumultuous story twists as they schemed and plotted against the other. This culminated in the dramatic 2000th episode in late-2004 where Pete threw Eileen into the River Thames. Pete's eventual comeuppance followed an armed showdown between Pete, Trish and Eileen in September 2005. Pete was shot dead after a shootout with S019 Officers (in a final act of Suicide by cop).
Several other characters, including Sadie, Dave and Lucy, were one by one written out of the series as Alison Davis ended her reign to be replaced by ex-Hollyoaks producer Sean O'Connor. O'Connor quickly outlined his plans for the show, including a name change and many new younger, more glamorous characters. However, his plans were cut short by the announcement soon after his arrival that Channel 5 would not be renewing the series for 2006. This timing resulted in numerous barely known new characters populating the final episodes, making the finale all the more challenging to pull off effectively.
The final episode of Family Affairs was broadcast on 30 December 2005 in the UK and on 29 June 2006 in Australia and New Zealand. 1.3 million people tuned in to watch the final in the UK.
The episode revolved mainly around the lead up to the Stanley Street New Year's Eve party and the wedding of Nathan and Eve Fletcher. During the last half-hour, Eileen Callan returned and announced she had won the lottery and was now very wealthy; she sold The Black Swann to Rex Randell and bought a house for the Costello family. Yasmin and Damian kissed and announced themselves as being a couple. Dr Hector Price and George finally became a couple after a falling out with nurse and flatmate Meridith. Babs Woods' longtime boyfriend Howard returned.
The final episode also featured the murder of Hester by her brother new landlord of The Black Swann Rex Randell, after his barmaid Katie saw footage of Rex murdering his late wife. After the murder, Rex faced up to Katie; the outcome of the showdown was not shown.
The final scene saw most of the cast of characters celebrating the New Year. Katie and Rex and Cat and Doug were absent: Katie was in the pub with Rex and Doug had split from his long-term wife Cat, moments before.
The show generally concentrated on family-based storylines and marital upsets, although more extreme storylines involving murder, rape, prostitution, blackmail, drug use, and brother-sister incestuous relationships have also occurred. Perhaps, most significantly, Family Affairs has often been acclaimed for its constant inclusion of minority groups, having featured a higher density of gay and lesbian characters over its history than any other British soap. It has also been praised for its treatment and integration of characters from ethnic minorities, notable examples of which include the inimitable Yasmin, who had been with the show for seven years at its final episode in December, and the more recent addition of a gay Muslim character, Sami Shafiq (Hosh Kane).
Family Affairs also went to unprecedented lengths in its treatment of the controversial issue of child abuse; in 2005, the soap won its first British Soap Award for a storyline in which young Chloe Costello (Leah Coombes) was sexually abused by a family friend, Bradley Foster (Harry Capehorn). The storyline, backed by the NSPCC, aimed to destroy some unhelpful stereotypes about what most expect a paedophile to be like. Partly, as a result of the storyline, Kazia Pelka, who played Chloe's mother Chrissy, also won the award for Best Dramatic Performance, culminating in a double victory for the show.