Monday, March 21, 2011

Housewife, 49

A couple of days ago TVNZ aired a TV movie called, Housewife, 49. It was written by Victoria Wood, who also plays the main character, Mrs Last, the housewife of the title, aged 49 at the time the story begins. Mrs Last is on the verge on another breakdown at the same time as England is on the verge of the Second World War. Her somewhat off-hand doctor recommends getting some friends (with the assumption that this is easy to do); in fact, what Mrs Last needs is a purpose in life, something to bring out her real and lively nature. Her two sons have grown up and are moving on, her husband continues to dominate the household by expecting everything to revolve around him - even though he's a person with almost no personality and no other interests in life except his joinery business. It all seems very bleak, and then Mrs Last joins the Women's Voluntary Service, who truly come into their own in the course of the war.

Things aren't all plain sailing from then on; her favourite son, Cliff, decides that he's acting as a coward by not fighting in the war (as opposed to being an army PT instructor) and ultimately he turns against her when she continues to mother him in the way she's always done. (He also turns out to be gay, something which of course he finds difficult to reveal.) She runs up against some strong-minded (and class-minded) women in the WVS, and more than once retires, battered and bruised. Her husband opposes her every move and it's only her sense that she's doing the right thing - not just for the war effort, but for herself - that keeps her going and eventually shows her that he's the weaker partner in the marriage.

There's a lot more subtlety in it than that brief synopsis allows, and Wood has provided a script full of great lines for her various characters to deliver, particularly Mrs Waite (played by Stephanie Cole) who never says anything without using the English language to its fullest extent. David Threlfall, as Mr Last, maintains a dour aspect throughout, and puts a damper on the slightest show of life in his household; yet he has moments in which we can sympathise with him. It's a superb performance, showing how even the most drear person has humanity and uniquness.

Throughout the story, Mrs Last writes a kind of diary, in pencil and on scrap paper, and sends this off as part of an initiative called the Mass Observation Project. Their Archive site notes: The Archive results from the work of the social research organisation, Mass Observation. This organisation was founded in 1937 by three young men, who aimed to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This original work continued until the early 1950s.

There were two aspects to the Project: one consisted of observers going to all manner of organisations and taking notes, the other was called The National Panel of Diarists and was composed of people from all over Britain who either kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires sent to them by the central team of Mass-Observers.

This latter is where Mrs Last's (true) story fits in. Her notes are kept faithfully by the Project team (along with thousands of others) and her sometimes heart-rending story is seen as a kind of serial in their day to day work. The original Project came to an end in the 1950s, but was revived via the Archive in 1981, and continues to this day with a wide range of writers still contributing to it.
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