Turn Back Time: Researching your High Street through the ages
Tom St John Gray
How do you think the British high street has changed over the last 150 years? In an era of online shopping and out-of-town retail centres, what skills, services and trades have disappeared from our high streets? Do we have a chance to bring back to life what we have now lost?
These were questions I thought about when accepting a job on BBC One's new series, Turn Back Time - The High Street, which brings together a group of modern shopkeepers in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. In a bold approach the shopkeepers are made to live, work and play through six key eras of British history.
The shopkeepers weren't alone on the journey - the Chamber of Commerce, a group of experts headed by MasterChef's Gregg Wallace, were there to support, guide and discipline our traders. There are brilliant points across the series when the shopkeepers face the wrath of the Chamber of Commerce - keep watching for the less than elegant first day at the Edwardian Tea Rooms.
Another compelling moment is when the entrepreneurial grocers get caught dabbling in the black market during the Second World War. After you've watched it, I'd love to know if you would have done the same?
As a producer on the series, I researched the history of the high street over the last 150 years. My background is in history, so I enjoyed getting stuck into a wealth of information available including detailed photos and archive film, censuses and surveys, and oral accounts from shop keepers and shoppers.
I even discovered my own family's shopkeeping past in the process - Welsh dairy farmers who moved to London in the Victorian era and set up a successful grocery business.
After many trips to museums, archives and reading lots of books, key themes emerged. There was the Victorian trend of adulteration and bulking up food with chemicals, and the Edwardian tea shop which enabled women to meet publicly and aid the suffragette movement.
We then moved on to rationing and the black market during the Second World War, and then the rise of self-service supermarkets which signalled the end of the high street's golden age. Throughout the series I was lucky enough to work with the widely respected social historian Juliet Gardiner, who was also part of the Chamber of Commerce.
As part of the research process, I also wrote nearly 30 shopkeepers manuals. These were detailed guides tailored towards each shopkeeper, outlining how their specific shops should be run in each era, including notes on rules and etiquette, recipes and day-to-day tasks.
The manuals also required a fully priced stock list for each shop which proved to be tricky, as the grocers alone had a range of hundreds of goods. Finding authentic prices in old money for each item was a real challenge.
I couldn't pick out a favourite era but I did love particular shops - the forge at the Victorian ironmonger, the etiquette and service of both the Edwardian grocer and the butcher, the kaleidoscope of colours from the 1960s milk bar, and the record shop in the 1970s.
Be sure to keep an eye out for our Eurovision winning guests who really brought the market square to life. I would love to hear about your favourite era from the series - which shops did you particularly like or dislike?
Working on Turn Back Time was a unique experience and it was fantastic to see history brought back to life in such a vivid and tangible way.
I think the emotions the shopkeepers show in each of the programmes is a clear indication of how much passion and enthusiasm they invested in their shops and the experience. Their story is at the very heart of this series. I hope that you enjoy Turn Back Time and the journey into the history of your high street.
Tom St John Gray is a producer on Turn Back Time - The High Street.
You can read a post on the BBC TV blog by Karl Sergison, the dad in the grocer family, about his experience on the programme.