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Radio 4 tribute to Mass Observation’s extraordinary story of everyday life

A University of Sussex archive devoted to everyday life and opinion as told by ordinary people is the subject of a series of Radio 4 special reports.

Mass Observation book coverThe Mass Observation Project, the archive for which forms part of the Library’s Special Collections, is 75 this year and, to mark the anniversary, the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 is charting the history of the project from 1937 onwards.

The reports include interviews with University members and in the first report, broadcast on 19 April, historian Dr Claire Langhamer can be heard talking to presenter Allan Little about the archive and why the public engaged with it.

The original project, begun in 1937, was the inspiration of anthropologists, writers and film-makers Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings. The three researchers wanted to create an “anthropology of ourselves” based on observations of everyday behaviour by anonymous volunteers who wrote reports.

The project then expanded to include day diaries and responses to questions on general and current topics, issued by the Mass Observation researchers.

Today it is in demand as a valuable source of information and inspiration for academics, writers and researchers ever since, providing human insights into topics ranging from World War II and the NHS to Princess Diana, homosexuality, pubs and beards.

Mass Observation in recent years has inspired Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island; Simon Garfield’s trilogy Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War and Private Battles; Victoria Wood’s BAFTA-winning drama Housewife, 49; Kevin McDonald’s YouTube documentary Life in a Day; and a wealth of other publications.

To listen to the ‘Today’ report for 19 April in full and to watch out for further reports, go to the BBC website.