15 January 2001
For immediate release
The Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex has been helping a family to learn what life was really like in World War II for Channel 4's new series, The 1940s House.
Like its successful predecessor, The 1900 House, broadcast in 1999, the series shows a modern household struggling to adapt to the conditions of a past era. On this occasion, the Hymers family has been coping with life on the Home Front in wartime suburban Kent.
To help the 21st-century family move into their roles, production company Wall to Wall Television asked to use a wartime diary from the Mass-Observation Archive, which is one of the University Library's special collections.
The Archive holds the work of the social research organisation, Mass-Observation, covering the years 1937 to the early 1950s. During this period, members of a Volunteer Panel produced a personal insight into daily life, showing the thoughts and feelings of British people, without the filter of the official political line.
After visiting the Archive, one of the producers chose the diary of Alex Daniel, a middle-aged teacher from southern England, who recorded his relatively privileged wartime existence until VE Day in May 1945.
The diary arrived at the West Wickham semi-detached house in April, just as the chosen family began living their temporary lives. As well as reading up on the period, the Hymers immediately had to take air raid precautions, including the preparation of blackout materials. Viewers of the opening episodes saw how claustrophobic this made them feel.
The TV series condenses six years of war into a handful of programmes, so in only a matter of weeks it was 1945 and blackout restrictions were lifted, as Mr Daniel had recorded for Mass-Observation: "The early scramble for curtain material, torches, low voltage bulbs; the careful drawing of curtains; nailing up of paper so as to exclude every chink … the dark dreariness coming home at night - all of it now to end."
On the eve of VE Day, Mr Daniel went to bed and slept with his curtains drawn back. For him, "it seemed to symbolise the beginning of peace somehow". For the Hymers family, the end of the war meant the end of a unique historical experiment - which had been made possible with a little bit of help from the Mass-Observation Archive.
Notes for editors
For further information, please contact Alison Field or Peter Simmons, University of Sussex,
Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, email A.Field@sussex.ac.uk or P.J.Simmons@sussex.ac.uk.