BBC Radio 4

    A history of private life

    I first met Amanda Vickery ten years ago - her book, 'The Gentleman's Daughter' had just been published, and she gave an interview to our local paper. Something about the interview made me think she would be good on the radio - her liveliness and her sense of fun came across, even in a print interview. I was right - when I called her, and we met for coffee, I realised that her warmth and her quick wit made her a radio natural. It took another ten years before we would work together - meanwhile, I was promoted to a job where I was no longer making radio programmes, and Amanda was winning prizes for her books, appearing as a regular contributor on programmes like 'Saturday Review', and becoming a Professor. When I went back to making radio programmes as a freelance producer, she was one of the first people I called.

    I have always been fascinated by the history of domestic life. I often think of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and their lives at home, the hard labour of it all, but also the real creative pleasure. On my study wall I have framed some of the beautiful miniature dolls' clothes my grandmother made me as a child: works of art. I'm pleased that our series includes a programme on sewing, and values the time and creativity of the many women who spent, and continue to spend, time on sewing, craftwork, decorating their homes. But the series goes much wider than that - it's as much about men as women, and the real pleasure husbands and fathers took in home. It's not fashionable to admit it, but for many men too, domestic life provides the greatest happiness.

    The challenge of this big series was to make each afternoon programme a satisfying story in itself, but to join them together in a coherent week for the Friday night Omnibus (2100 on Friday). Each week has a theme, and over the six weeks we move from the 16th to the 20th century. The programmes are all very different: some are funny, some very dark - like the terrible diary of domestic violence from the early nineteenth century. Some have dozens of voices in them, some are just the story of one person, drawn from intimate letters and diaries. I thought of it like constructing a quilt - each piece very different, some plain, some embroidered, but sewn together, a pattern emerges.

    As Amanda began to write the stories in the series, and we met every week for coffee to discuss the latest programme, I began to wonder about music. Were there songs which would illustrate our themes? My friend David Owen Norris, a brilliant concert pianist and Professor of Music, put me in touch with a young academic, Wiebke Thormahlen. She began to search libraries for songs about drunken husbands, burglars, housework. And it was extraordinary what she found - a protest song about women's servitude from the 18th century; a comic song about seducing a woman who never stops talking; and my favourite, 'The Housewife's Lament', in which an early nineteenth century housewife describes the unremitting toil of her life, cleaning, cooking, ironing, and imagines a never-ending tide of dirt coming towards her. When I showed this to a young man, he thought it was funny, and it does have a twist in the end; but for me it almost makes me cry (you can hear verses from it in week 1, week 2 and week 4 of the series).

    Once Wiebke Thormahlen and David Owen Norris had gathered a pile of sheet music, we found some great singers to bring it to life - these are not songs which have been recorded before. Thomas Guthrie is a baritone and opera director - I'd seen him in Aldeburgh, singing an extraordinary 'Wintereisse' with puppets. Our other singer, Gwyneth Herbert, doesn't usually sing this kind of song at all - she's a singer-songwriter who writes her own material, and appears at venues like Ronnie Scott's. But I'd heard her interviewed on Radio 4, and started listening to her songs, and loved the way she brought such emotional power to her performances. It's a haunting voice.

    We recorded the music in David Owen Norris's keyboard room at the University of Southampton one Saturday; it's a large space packed with a variety of instruments so we could move round the room from the harpsichord to the forte piano to the modern piano as the series moved through the centuries. David arranged the sig tune too - a take on the old song 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron', played in the style of different periods. The first week starts with a simple harpsichord - by week 6, the song's moved into boogie-woogie jazz piano.

    Any big series like this depends on having the right team. We were lucky enough to be able to book engineer Jon Calver to record the music; and to attract a team of first-class actors - among them Deborah Findlay, John Sessions and Madeleine Brolly - to read for us. The home team at Loftus - Jo Coombs, David Smith and Tobin Coombs - dealt with actors' agents, read scripts, suggested changes, and improvised sound effects. Loftus is a small and highly prestigious production company, who specialise in crafted features and documentaries - and it has been a pleasure working with them.

    It's been such a big project - we've been working on it for a year now. You can probably tell what enormous fun it's been to bring the voices of the past to life in such a substantial series. I am really looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

    Elizabeth Burke is Producer of A History of Private Life


    More Posts