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Radio 4 uncovers secret history of private life in Britain

Update – 8 September 2009: this press release has been updated to include information about a programme to launch the series at 9.00am on Monday 28 September.

Award-winning historian Professor Amanda Vickery is to present a brand new series, A History Of Private Life, for BBC Radio 4, which reveals the secrets of private life in Britain over 400 years.

Starting on Monday 28 September at 3.45pm, this major 30-part series will reveal the intimate secrets of private life at home, from the Tudor mansion to the modern bedsit.

Men behaving badly, adultery on the sofa, servants running amok, witches, poltergeists, burglars, bashful bachelors, glamorous widows, wedding nights, rows in bed, bedbugs, pots and pans, the imperial bungalow and suburban love – all in their own words.

This is original research. For the last 20 years, Amanda Vickery has scoured archives across the country collecting letters, diaries and household account books.

Through these first-person accounts, listeners will hear the voices of men and women from very different backgrounds talking about their daily lives: the bachelor who longs to be married but scares off all the girls; the widower who is having an affair with his housekeeper and is tortured by guilt; the wife whose insanely jealous husband forces her to hide in the closet; the mother who struggles to provide the best education for her children at home; and one of the richest and most powerful couples in England out on a shopping spree.

Amanda has also sought out transcripts of court records for witchcraft, burglary and arson trials. The result is a vivid picture of private life from the 16th to the 20th century.

The cast of readers bringing this history to life include actors Deborah Findlay, John Sessions, Jasmine Hyde, Jeremy Young, Simon Tcherniak and Madeleine Brolly.

The series also features songs from the 18th and 19th centuries which have never before been recorded.

They are performed by leading British singer-songwriter, Gwyneth Herbert, concert pianist and Professor of Music at the University of Southampton, David Owen Norris, and baritone singer and opera director, Thomas Guthrie.

Professor Amanda Vickery says: "I leapt at the chance of unveiling the mysteries of private life for the Radio 4 audience.

"I have spent my entire career chiselling personal secrets out of neglected archives so it was a delight to hear my sources brought to dramatic life by gifted actors and singers.

"Private lives are no less significant than public institutions. Relationships and emotion are the heartbeat of the past – the long dead were just as complex as us and their dilemmas just as vivid.

"The radio production team showed me how unusual documents can be translated into enthralling stories, creating an involving sound portrait of the way we lived then."

Mark Damazer, Controller, Radio 4, says: "Amanda Vickery's commitment to this enormous research project is outstanding. It is a great privilege to have an academic of such calibre share an area of British history previously unexplored in this landmark series for Radio 4."

To launch the series on Monday 28 September at 9.00am on Radio 4, Tom Sutcliffe will chair a discussion which brings together Professor Amanda Vickery, Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust, and Daniel Miller, Professor of Material Culture at University College London, to compare and contrast Amanda's historical findings with perceptions of home life in the 21st century.

The complete series schedule

Monday 28 September to Friday 2 October: A Private Space (16th-17th century)

  • 1. The Bed – and how husbands and wives negotiated power there
  • 2. Things That Go Bump In The Night – ghosts, witches and poltergeists wrecking the home
  • 3. The State In Miniature – how power at home reflected wider political ideas about Divine order
  • 4. Into The Closet – religious space and refuge from abusive husbands
  • 5. Every Man's Home Is His Castle: Burglary – how the house was fortified, and who locks up at night

Monday 5 to Friday 9 October: Running The Home (17th century)

  • 1. All My Life Is A Struggle With Dirt – and the symbolic importance of the linen cupboard
  • 2. Pots And Pans – why they matter, and how they became the symbol of women
  • 3. Kitchen Physic – how medicines were made at home to cure everything from piles to rabies
  • 4. Ornamenting The Home – how sewing drove women mad, and kept them sane
  • 5. Mistress And Servants – a difficult relationship, full of affection – and abuse

Monday 12 to Friday 16 October: Visitors And New Codes Of Politeness (18th century)

  • 1. Tea – and the beginning of visiting – the home as a public stage
  • 2. Domestic Harmony – how making music was sexy, and vital in courtship
  • 3. Men At Home – embarrassing uncles, sons, and life with a drunken husband
  • 4. Secrets at Home – Illicit Guests – sneaking lovers into the house, and how you were caught
  • 5. Domestic Violence – the dark side of private life, and how home became a trap

Monday 19 to Friday 23 October: Those Without Homes (17th-18th century)

  • 1. The Servants – where they slept, and with whom
  • 2. Bachelors And Lodgers – young men on the town
  • 3. Spinsters – traipsing from house to house – imagining life together
  • 4. Widows – how their wealth and power created some of the grandest 18th century houses
  • 5. Widowers – the desperate search for a new wife – two intimate diaries

Monday 26 to Friday 30 October: Showing Off (18th-19th century)

  • 1. Magnificence – the divorced duchess and her fight to keep up appearances
  • 2. Taste – how doing up a house became the lifetime project of a marriage
  • 3. Science And Nature In The Home – making rooms out of shells and feathers
  • 4. Courtship And Setting Up Home – how decisions about furnishing made a marriage
  • 5. Neat And Not Too Showy – why the middle-classes loved wallpaper

Monday 2 to Friday 6 November: Escaping The Home (19th-20th century)

  • 1. Domestic Education In Rhe Moral Home – what kind of education did daughters get?
  • 2. Exporting Home – recreating home in the imperial bungalow
  • 3. The Garden Indoors – the fashion for French windows, the fernery, the conservatory
  • 4. Suburban Bliss – for snobs and bohemians, 'suburban' was the ultimate put-down, but for many between the Wars, it was the ultimate dream
  • 5. Alternative Homes: When Did Domesticity Become Depressing? The flat, the bedsit, bohemian life – the home loses all sexiness

Notes to Editors

Preview listening copies available on request.

The launch programme of A History Of Private Life will be broadcast on Monday 28 September, 9.00-9.30am, on BBC Radio 4. The programme will be repeated in the evening at 9.30pm.

30 x 15-minute programmes will be broadcast Monday to Friday, 3.45 to 4.00pm, for six weeks on Radio 4, starting on Monday 28 September 2009.

Repeats in an omnibus edition on Friday evenings, 9.00 to 10.00pm.

Amanda Vickery is Professor of Modern British History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her book The Gentleman's Daughter – Women's Lives In Georgian England won the Wolfson, the Whitfield and the Longman History Today prize. Amanda won an AHRC knowledge transfer fellowship to collaborate with independent production company Loftus, the first such grant to a media production company.

Producer Elizabeth Burke has made many features and documentaries for Radio 4 and BBC Radio 3, winning several Sony Awards. She has also worked as a Commissioning Editor for Radio 4 and as Editor of the Bristol Features Unit. She is now freelance and makes programmes through Loftus.

Loftus specialises in highly crafted features and documentaries for BBC Radio, and also makes audio guides for the Tate, the Louvre, the British Museum and many other galleries and museums.


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