Television Reviews

1940s House – Could We Live Like The Greatest Generation Did?

With the popularity of reality shows the past few years, PBS had to get in on the act somehow. Although their entries into this phenomenon tried to take the high road a bit, it was still all about the ability for all of us sitting at home watching on our televisions to commiserate or laugh at those on the screen.

1940’s House was one of those shows by PBS. In it, the producers took a modern British family and sent them to live in a house like they would have been living in during the Second World War. In a suburb outside of London, a house is transformed to one of that era. They have no television, car, or telephone. It’s modeled on what were the typical middle-class homes of the 1930s, right down to their toothbrushes. Their hardships include rationing and air-raids. They will be immersed in the experience for nine weeks.

The family is named the Hymers. They consist of a married couple, Michael and Lyn. Joining them is their newly-divorced daughter, Kirstie, and the daughter’s two sons, Ben and Thomas. Once the family is chosen, they are also transformed into people of the era. They have to dress the way people dressed during that era as well as have their hair cut the way people of that day wore it.

For the first week, they aren’t subject to food rationing. They are, however, subject to the original BBC Radio Broadcasts which tout the virtues of economizing during wartime in addition to the latest news. The original broadcasts were what the family listened to as well. The women must adjust to cooking with the food of that time as well as without many of the modern conveniences and gadgets we enjoy that make life easier and we take for granted.

Watching the family go into their new home, and the mother of the two sons be absolutely horrified at the thought of having to bake her own cake was funny. Even I can bake a cake from scratch when I have to. What’s worse is when the preparations for the pie fall on the floor, the initial – and very modern – reaction is to throw it all away. Yet, if food is as dear as it is during time of war, they would do their best to clean it up and eat it regardless.

I liked how historians researched the area the family was located in and could talk about what had happened to people in the area, such as the house across the street being blown up by a bomb, or a young mother not too far away falling down the stairs and dying while she was rushing to comfort her child in the dark. These people were called “The War Room” and decided when the family would be subject to an air raid, when to impose more rigid restrictions upon them, and when to give them a break.

The situation grows harder and harder. Rationing is imposed, air-raid warnings sound, the father must leave to go find work, leaving the women alone with the children. The women must find the time to serve their community and support the war effort in addition to managing the home.

There were some terrific things about 1940’s House. My mother was a teenager during this time here in the U.S. and I never appreciated what life was like for her. She may not have been subject to the bombing raids, but there were similarities to what life was like in the States during this time. In addition, thinking about all of what she’s seen in her life is amazing. Cell phones really were something out of a science-fiction radio drama to her.

Michael Hymers had billed himself as something of a buff of this era before this took place. It’s one of the things that got the family chosen. He learns just what it was like as they have to build their own bomb shelter right off the bat to protect themselves and the romance he feels for the era evaporates. Instead, by the end of the series, it seems to be replaced by a respect and appreciation for that era and the people who lived through it.

Lyn and Kirstie develop this as well, and that comes mainly from their volunteer time in a retirement home talking to survivors. It’s their way of doing the community service and it really bring out that this isn’t just a staged show for the sake of our need to laugh at people – this really happened.

At the same time, was missing from the show is the sense of community that bonded neighborhoods together during this time. They Hymers are pretty much on their own, although some neighbors do help with the building of the bomb shelter. There is outside contact with a storekeeper who is going by the rules of that era and what instructions he receives from “The War Room” as well as times when they are out in the community such as the retirement home or visiting a re-enactment at Biggin Hill as a days outing.

Other shows of this vein have shown just how competitive we are in modern times with each other. Where people banded together to help each other in the past, we seem to delight more watching our neighbors fail. With that in mind, perhaps the producers chose to do it with just one family this time to create less drama between the people which was front and center during other shows in this line, but it really is missing here. It would have been nice to see three or four families on the same block with varying circumstances try and cope with the same thing and how their reactions are. Going by what I’ve seen on other shows, they wouldn’t have come together, though. It’s something that we seem to have lost as a society as we close ourselves off more and more from our neighbors and communicate exclusively through various electronic devices.

I found 1940’s House interesting in the same way I have found documentaries interesting. It isn’t as entertaining as other shows of this genre, but I found it educational. It really put the life I have in perspective.

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