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Sussex diary date with Rory Bremner and Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood and Rory Bremner view the original diaries of Nella Last in the Mass Observation Archive

A television programme featuring a visit to the Mass Observation Archive in the University of Sussex library by TV stars Rory Bremner and Victoria Wood will be screened next week (Monday 18 January) on BBC 4.

The programme is the third of a three-part series, Dear Diary, which explores the act of diary writing, illustrated by some very famous examples. Three different hosts – Richard E. Grant, Mariella Frostrup and Rory Bremner examine different themes, helped by a number of special guests.

Political satirist and impressionist Rory Bremner included the visit to the Mass Observation Archive as part of his look at journals, namely those of Samuel Pepys, Alan Clark, Captain Scott – and  the wartime diaries written by Mass Observation correspondents during World War II.

In the programme, Rory Bremner asks what diaries can offer to history and what makes a diary almost as famous as the events it describes.

Rory Bremner chatted to Victoria Wood about the significance of the Archive’s collection of wartime diaries kept by ordinary people on behalf of the Mass Observation project. Comedian and actor Ms Wood won a BAFTA two years ago for her adaptation of Nella Last’s Mass Observation diaries. She also starred in the resulting ITV drama, Housewife. 49.

University of Sussex Special Collections Manager Fiona Courage and her team were on hand to help the celebrities navigate the brown boxes of original letters and diaries that make up the Mass Observation Archive, stored in Special Collections in the University library. They were joined by Dorothy Sheridan, Director of the Mass Observation Project.

Fiona says: “We were involved in the filming and Dorothy was interviewed about the archive. We both prepared archival material for the filming, and I supervised the film crew while in Special Collections.

“Rory was very friendly and funny, and really engaged with the diaries that he was looking through. He brought out both the funny and the moving side of the things that Nella was writing about.”

She adds: “So many archives contain diaries written by famous or notable personalities. Mass Observation's writers, however, were ordinary people who prove that everyday life, with its humour, pain, love and losses can be just as fascinating.”

Dorothy Sheridan says: “The film crew were keen to capture Victoria Wood's first actual sight of the original Nella Last diary. For her drama, she had worked entirely from the edited book for Housewife 49. This was the first time she had visited the Archive at Sussex, seen the diary in context – and seen Nella’s handwriting.

“Rory Bremner was very funny. He kept slipping into impersonations of people over lunch, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.”

She adds: "With the new wave of interest in family history, personal stories and life history, the Mass Observation diaries have really come into their own. We need to remember that this period of our history is now slipping away from living memory so the diaries become increasingly important as a way of understanding adult experience during the Second World War.

“Nella Last was the perfect Mass Observer because she was good at combining her acute observations of the small world around her in Barrow with some beautifully written reflections on the bigger issues of the time - war, social conditions, motherhood, marriage and life in general."

In the programme, Rory takes polar explorer Pen Hadow to see the extraordinary last diary of Captain Scott, an emotional experience for the adventurer. A boat trip on the Thames reveals Edwina Currie's passion for another former MP, Samuel Pepys. He wrote in secret and in shorthand, seemingly to prevent anyone ever reading his now-famous journal. Rory visits Jane Clark, the widow of political diarist and MP Alan Clark, at her home in Saltwood Castle, where he has an exclusive peek at the original Alan Clark diaries.The Mass Observation Archive is specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections.



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 University of Sussex Special Collections includes some important literary collections (including those of Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf), rare books, photographs and artefacts.

The third Dear Diary programme is on Monday 18 January at 9pm on BBC 4 and is repeated throughout the week, along with numerous repeats online via the BBC iPlayer)

For further information and images, contact the University of Sussex Press office on 01273 678 888 or email


Last updated: Wednesday, 3 February 2010