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A trip back in time: 'The 1940s House'

Sunday, November 03, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Following the success of "The 1900 House" in England and America, producers put another highbrow reality show into production. "The 1940s House" was filmed almost two and a half years ago and aired in England in January 2001. It washes ashore here Wednesday.

In a burst that's likely to fatigue viewers, all three hours air on one night, which makes it seem like PBS is burning off the program.


"The 1940s House"

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday on WQED.

Host: Geoffrey Palmer

"1940s House" takes the same concept as "1900 House" and this spring's "Frontier House" -- ask a modern family to live the lifestyle of another era -- and applies it to the London home front during World War II.

Three generations of the Hymers family move into a suburban London home outfitted in early 1940s technology and accouterments. Patriarch Michael has always been interested in World War II, "an obsession," according to his wife, Lyn.

"It's a healthy interest, not an obsession," Michael rebuts.

Their daughter Kirstie, 29 when the series was produced, also moves in, along with her sons, Ben, 10, and Thomas, 7.

Typically, it begins with family members looking bewildered over, say, baking a cake from scratch or hair care of the era.

"How could it take this long to look this ugly?" Lyn asks after putting curlers in her hair.

A War Cabinet, comprising mostly historians, evaluates the family's behavior and whether it conforms to the period. They also choose some of the obstacles to throw in the family's way.

The family has to make blackout windows, build a bomb shelter in the back yard and go into it during frequent mock air raids in the middle of the night. They're also forced into rationing, and the '40s-era shop where the family gets groceries often has empty food shelves. In one memorable scene, Kirstie and Lyn argue over who's had less food.

"We can laugh and cry about it now," Lyn said in a phone interview from her 1940s-style vacation home in England.

After teasing her husband about his '40s obsession, Lyn now finds herself interested in the era, maybe even more than he is.

"My mum would have quite happily stayed in that house the rest of her life," Kirstie said during the same phone interview. "She's created this seaside bungalow to how it would have been in the 1940s and it's where she wants to spend most of her time."

After filming "1940s House," the family bought a car manufactured in 1949 and Lyn swore off supermarkets, preferring to shop at neighborhood shops.

"My dad's a very happy man now. I think he's the one who's benefited most of all," Kirstie said. "It got my mom making homemade meals when it used to be pizza."

"We've got a tin bathtub we put in front of the fire," Lyn said. "My husband's coming tomorrow, and he wants me to have his hot bath ready. We're crackers, absolute raving loonies."

Lyn said a woman living in the 1940s had a more clearly defined role as a housewife than modern women do.

"Your job in life, your aim, was to get food on the table and look after the family. Modern women have so many different things to aspire to. Life is full of pressure for modern women," she said. "[Back then] there was harder physical work, but mentally it was much less pressure, and we were closer as a family without a shadow of a doubt."

"The 1940s House" recounts how Ben, who was named fuel warden by the show's War Cabinet, took his responsibilities seriously, turning off lights and reprimanding his mother and grandmother when they didn't conserve electricity. When Lyn's husband left the house to go to work for three weeks, Ben declared himself "man of the house" and began sitting at the head of the table.

"Of all the hundreds of letters we've gotten, the children come out very well," Lyn said. "They were hungry, but you didn't see them grumble. How could we adults grumble? It was so hard to see the children hungry, but they didn't mind. They had a wonderful time."

At the end of the program, the boys return to life in 2000, but they don't immediately begin playing video games non-stop.

"That's continued," Kirstie said. "They will go on PlayStation, but it's not on all the time. It took them a good year until they were how they were before the 1940s house. They still like to play and make up their own games. If I give them a choice, they'd rather play board games than television or PlayStation."

American viewers may or may not choose to spend three hours in front of the tube watching the Hymers Wednesday night. Lyn was dismayed by PBS's plans to air the entire series in a single burst.

"That will bore people rigid! Who's going to sit and watch three hours?" Lyn said. "Oh deary me."

Regardless of PBS's poor scheduling, she thinks the series will resonate, especially with viewers who lived through the era.

"Americans played such an awfully big part in that war," Lyn said. "Lots of lives were lost, so to the older generations it's quite relevant. And here we are perhaps waiting to go to war again, and this time the Brits are supposed to help the Americans."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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