Main Cast: Ben, Lyn and Kirstie Hymers
Director: Caroline Ross-Pirie
Sleazy Voyeurism. That’s what it’s all about, really, Sleeeeeeazy Voyeurism. I know that. Yet still, I watch. I can’t help it – I’m addicted. That’s right; I’m addicted to the sleazy voyeurism with an egghead twist that PBS offers up every time they create one of their House series. Oh, it might not be as sleazy as some of the reality television out there – okay, it isn’t anywhere near as sleazy as any of the other reality television out there – but what makes these programs more than a dry exposition on an historical time period is the human factor. Nothing spices up some educational TV like a good family feud or some class warfare. My latest foray into the land of peeking through the PBS blinds comes in the form of 1940s House, one of the earlier series to be filmed, and at only three hours total, one of the shortest.
1940s House sets a twenty-first century family down in the…….1940s! As a British production that decade has great significance, they’re recreating the Home Front – setting these people smack dab in the middle of WWII London. The program begins with setting the stage, finding and renovating the house so that it resembles a house of the period as closely as possible. Appliances, furnishings, cooking utensils – all are faithfully reproduced. Once the physical surroundings are set, it’s time to bring on the family.
There is only one family in the 1940s House, the Hymers. Patriarch Michael is a buff. A 1940s buff. His own home in this century is filled with memorabilia from the era and he’s greatly enthused about having the chance to participate in this project. His wife Lyn is not as enthused, for she is not a buff, but she’s game to go along and make the most of the experience. Joining Lyn and Michael are their recently divorced daughter and her two young sons. Once chosen, the Hymers are outfitted with a proper wardrobe and more or less tossed back in time. On top of learning how to run a household without modern conveniences, they will also have to deal with shortages, rationing, black-outs and air raids – just as did their 1940s counterparts.
1940s House sounds inherently boring. It doesn’t have the sort of built in pizzazz of something like Frontier House, where everybody has to build a cabin and survive off the land, or Manor House, where we all get to rip on the snooty Lord and Lady and their pompous ways. Yet…………it has a certain something. A charm. An innocence maybe. Something that makes it far more interesting than it really has any right to be. Part of that charm comes from the family itself. Perhaps more than any of the other House program participants, this family really takes to heart what those who actually lived through this time must have felt. When they feel sorry for themselves, they often note that they are in this for the experience, those who lived through that time were fighting to survive. They generally have an earnest, humane and unselfish outlook on the project and each other. This makes them charming. It also makes them exceedingly frustrating.
As interesting as it is to learn about the Home Front – and it is fascinating – the Sleazy Voyeurism component is definitely lacking in this House installment. Some of the greatest fun of the other installments is in watching people from diverse backgrounds try and make the project work together – and get along. Here we only have one family, so that diversity is missing. Their conflicts are brief and have the feeling of well trodden ground – long standing disagreements without much spark just rekindled a bit by unfamiliar surroundings. Their only real challenge is in dealing with the time period, not with each other.
That said, 1940s House does have, I believe, the single most wonderful creation of any of the series to date. That invention is the Wartime Cabinet. Oh, it’s a thing of beauty. A group of historians and scholars well versed in the day to day trials of people on the Home Front set up camp in an historic building and basically decide the fate of the Hymers. They get to decide when there will be an air raid, what the shortages will be, when the family is having it too easy. They are essentially there to insure that none of the Home Front tortures pass this family by. The beauty of the Wartime Cabinet is that they get to gauge the family’s comfort level and ratchet things up a notch if things start to look a smidge too easy, or give the family a break if they’ve proven themselves capable of handling something very difficult. The Cabinet members discuss what would be happening in London at different points during the war and how that would affect an average family. Then they make it happen to the Hymers. Not in any sort of sadistic way (well, maybe a little – but not too bad….) rather in a way that will give this family an idea of just how difficult it was to survive during this long period of conflict. The other series installments depend a lot on luck and circumstance to drive the experience – this one has a little more of a guiding force. It’s a bit different and helps offset the distressing lack of petty drama within the household.
Overall, 1940s House is good for a fix of PBS reality, but isn’t quite up to the level of Manor House or the uber-fabulousness of Frontier House. The history, as always, is fascinating and delivered beautifully by the smooth voiced narrator. The family is charming and the situations interesting, especially when manipulated by the Wartime Cabinet. Yet the program lacks some of the spark found when the participants are forced to mix it up with strangers as well as family. Definitely worth the few hours investment, but don’t expect to be quite as captivated as by some of the other House programs. In the Sleazy Voyeurism Sweepstakes, PBS will always come in a distant last – but it’s good to know they’re fighting the good fight.
— S. Millinocket