« Previous | Main | Next »

A history of private life

Post categories:

Elizabeth Burke 17:04, Thursday, 24 September 2009

Home Sweet Home

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


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm taken aback by the claim here and in the program that "these are not songs which have been recorded before". I've only listened to the first program so far, but The Housewife's Lament is a well-known song which has been recorded many times, as a trivial Google search shows. I know of recordings by Peggy Seeger, Frankie Armstrong, and Anne Hill and Cindy Mangsen for starters, and I'm sure there are more.

    I don't know what other songs this claim is being made about, but I guess that Get Up And Bar The Door is another since it's on the 'Music from the Series' page. This is another very well known song with many versions, often recorded, though I don't know if this particular version has been recorded before.

  • Comment number 2.

    @jjjfarrell I brought your comment to Elizabeth's attention and she sent me this reply to your comment:

    "You`re right, I should have said, many of these songs have not been recorded. I`ve asked the online people if they can publish this correction because I would not want to undermine our excellent music researcher by making false claims.

    Some of these songs are old folk songs which people might know - later in the series, for instance, we use 'Early One Morning' and clearly people know 'Home Sweet Home', but some have not been recorded before to my knowledge: for instance I do not think there are any recordings of the song 'A Lady's Case' which we used last week. 'How hard is the fortune of all woman kind, for ever subjected, for ever confined...' this is a song from the 1730s. Or 'Belinda', which we use in week 3.

    Or the song we use this week about servants - 'Dame Durden'. What was interesting to me is that the young people who were around at the time of the making of the series did not know even the songs which I had thought were well-known - eg 'Early One Morning', or our sig tune 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron'. I went to primary school in Scotland and we learnt a huge number of folk songs, both Scottish and English, but it seems these songs are not taught in most primary schools any more. That does seem a shame to me."

  • Comment number 3.

    Are there plans to publish a book from the series? Would be wonderful!

  • Comment number 4.

    I've really been enjoying this series. I love the details of everyday life, and it reminds me of a lovely book I read a couple of years back - "At day's close : a history of nighttime" by Roger Ekirch. This covered the history of customs and activities at the end of day, and again had a lot of personal social history in it.

  • Comment number 5.

    I heard the omnibus on friday for the first time, I really enjoyed. I know my Mum would really like this series but is not very computer savvy. Is there an option to download to cd, or perhaps an intention to release it as an audio book?

  • Comment number 6.

    I would just like to say how much I am enjoying A History of Private Life. I graduated from the University of Leeds in 2007 with a PhD on a handful of Yorkshire elite women and their households, and have always been deeply passionate about the interaction of people with their built environment. It seems that such a subject for historical research has been a long time in the making, but aside from my relentless chatter about some eighteenth-century household structures to my own family, it has also sparked a huge interest from my own circle of friends. It would be fantastic to see more of this type of study laid bare at houses and record offices on a regular basis, and this series should really be projected further than radio! There is some meaty material here which should be discussed and highlighted for a wider audience, since (and Amanda Vickery has stated this) history is more than ‘battles and legislation, of bishops and kings’.

  • Comment number 7.

    I look forward to this more than I have anything on TV or radio for some time. When will it be available on CD? I'd love to get it for my mother for Christmas.

  • Comment number 8.

  • Comment number 9.

    I love Amanda Vickery's History of Private Life.
    I am a radio devotee, and I spend much more time listening to it than I ever spend watching television.
    As a professor, I note the careful construction of the programme by the producer: Amanda is not the only voice, and her short talk is carefully followed by a song, a poem by a reader, then back to her etc; I played one of her programmes to students in a historiography class; as children of a visual age, brought up on 'sound bites', they were amazed that listening was not necessarily 'boring', on the contrary.
    Well done, BBC

  • Comment number 10.

    I have been listening to the History of Private Lives, and have also loved it. Being a history graduate, it returned to many of the themes I had studied, so was a great joy. I would also urge the BBC to release the programme on cd, and perhaps expand it to a series on BBC4. It would also be great if there was a book available, which I understand will not be happening.

  • Comment number 11.

    Wondering if any bloggers can help. Monday 12th Oct 09 A History of Private Life was all about Tea. It featured a poem by Elizabeth Hands all about taking tea. I would like to read the whole poem. Can anyone suggest where I might find it. I did a google search but to no avail.
    Many thanks, dora

  • Comment number 12.

    I would like to say how much I am enjoying your series. Since my dear wide died 4 years ago I have depended on the wireless for company and have loved listening to you every day and found the programmes so interesting. I shall miss you.

    Is there or will there be a book ?

    I have enjoyed the songs particularly The Housewife’s lament – I love the way that she sings it , particularly the short pause in the last line.

    Just one other comment - I can’t help wondering why one of the readers seems to be doing a Margaret Thatcher impression and I wonder if it is deliberate

  • Comment number 13.

    Just to clarify that it was my wife who sadly died and not my wide .

  • Comment number 14.

    Hello dora_bull. Amanda Vickery tells me:

    "the poem can be found in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. Roger Lonsdale"

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.