Life on the home front

In The 1940s House, a family volunteers to put up with hardships of life during World War II. Nick Smurthwaite can’t believe what they let themselves in for

Who needs a time machine when you’ve got TV documentary crews itching to whisk you back to prehistory, the middle ages or the Victorian era? The latest timewarp wheeze is Channel 4’s The 1940s House, a sequel to last year’s The 1900 House.

The Hymers family from Otley, Yorkshire, consisting of three adults and two children, agreed to move south for nine weeks and submit themselves to the rigours of wartime austerity. That meant no phone, no car, no telly, no washing machine, no central heating, no fridge and, thanks to War Cabinet-imposed rationing, extremely limited food supplies.

In short, two months of unutterable misery. What makes Wall to Wall’s series enjoyable is the way the Hymers overcame all these privations to reach the point where they could honestly say they’d found it an enriching experience.

The Tudorbethan semi in Wickham, Kent, where they are deposited, is a riot of cream and brown gloss paint, floral fabrics, checkboard floor tiles, and coal fires. In their cotton pinnies (girls) and sleeveless jumpers (boys), the Hymers certainly look the part. But the rot sets in for mother Lyn and grown-up daughter Kirstie as they come to realise how hard-going domestic life was in the war years.

Having been accustomed to convenience foods and modern appliances, the prospect of making pastry with lard and drying clothes through a wringer is enough to make Lyn reach for another Woodbine. Lyn emerges as the star turn, coming out with impromptu lines worthy of Alan Bennett. Viewing the twin beds she and her husband have been allocated, she says mournfully, “Celibacy’s the order of the day I suppose they just crawled into their twin beds and died.”

As with all these fly-on-the-wall jobs, there is friction, caused by enforced proximity in a confined space. Kirstie, concerned about the diet of her two small sons, catches granny Lyn scoffing a piece of carefully conserved chocolate cake.

The kids, probably used to sweets, crisps and burgers, have to make do with mincemeat rissoles and jam sandwiches. But they do blag some crisps and sweets off mates at school.

Accompanying the three hour-long programmes are some relentlessly chirpy songs of the era – aimed at keeping those Hitler-weary peckers up – and some hilarious Government broadcasts which sound like Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondeley-Warner, packed with crude psychology and sexist assumptions. For instance, lipstick is referred to as “the red badge of courage”, in the belief that its application transformed a timid woman into a beacon of confidence and assertiveness.

Every day, Lyn and Kirstie trek down to the nearest grocer’s shop (the producers managed to persuade a local grocer to play along with the 1940s theme), only to be told that 90 per cent of the things they require are in short supply or unavailable.

The grocer confidently expects to have his tongue ripped out when he tells the women – both committed smokers – that he’s all out of Woodbines. Surprisingly, they take the news quite well and resort to roll-ups, as did thousands of others in the war. Even loo paper – the old tracing paper stuff, none of your soft-as-a-puppy luxury – is confined to one roll a week, when the Hymers are used to wiping their way through at least five rolls. From a culinary point of view, the Hymers were no doubt mightily relieved to get back to the 21st century and its multiplicity of choice.

But, it emerges in a half-hour postscript show filmed six months on, there was one wartime foodstuff they took to their hearts – Spam, short for Specially Pressed American Meats. The boys developed such a taste for this contingency food that spam fritters are served up as a birthday treat. Give me a corned beef sarnie any day.

The 1940s House is on Channel 4 in three weekly episodes from 4 January. The 1940s House exhibition is at the Imperial War Museum, SE1, until 3 June

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