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Bulletin - 1 December 2006

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Victoria Wood creates TV drama from Mass Observation diary

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Photo of Victoria Wood as Nella
Housewife, 49: Nella Last's wartime diary is one of hundreds in the Mass Observation Archive, which is held in the Library. Nella's story was one of the first to be published (in 1981) and has now been made into a TV drama starring Victoria Wood.
Original photo of Nella Last

Award-winning television writer and performer Victoria Wood has written and stars in a wartime TV drama based on one of the Mass Observation diaries held in the Library at Sussex.

'Housewife, 49', to be shown on ITV on Sunday 10 December, follows six turbulent years in the life of Nella Last, a Lancashire housewife, who joined the MO's army of anonymous writers at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Through her writing, Nella reveals her fears for her son (played by Christopher Harper) as he fights for the country, emotional changes in the relationship with her husband (David Threlfall), and the companionship and purpose she discovers through joining the local Women's Voluntary Service.

As Victoria Wood says, "This is not the war of the newsreels - it's about tiny domestic difficulties, chilly church halls, lumpy custards. And Nella is fighting her own war, one that she hopes will end in liberation."

Although the Mass Observation Archive contains hundreds of wartime diaries, Nella's story was one of the first to be published (in 1981) and has fascinated researchers and readers ever since for its depiction of domestic wartime Britain.

Dorothy Sheridan, Head of Special Collections, was involved in putting together material for the original publication. "A documentary maker was interested in doing something with some of the MO diaries, and I thought Nella's one would be suitable because it was so complete," she recalls. "Nella wouldn't have written if it hadn't been for MO. She was rather lonely and she found that writing this was a way of reassuring herself."

Nella Last died in 1968 and Dorothy traced her relatives in Barrow-in-Furness to find out more about Nella's background. The original plans for a documentary did not materialise, but the manuscript was published as Nella Last's War.

Victoria Wood was among those who already had a copy of this book when she was approached by ITV producer Piers Wenger to collaborate on a TV project.

"I thought Nella's diaries would make a good drama," she says. "I read the book over and over and began to find things beneath the surface that I was interested in. It wasn't just about rationing and dried egg and people painting their legs brown to look like stockings. There was a story underneath of a woman in crisis."

The title of the drama is taken from Nella's description of herself: a housewife, aged 49 at the start of the diary. Piers and Victoria also visited Nella's former home, as well as friends and family members, to recreate an accurate picture of life in the 1930s and 1940s.

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