Back In Time For Tea – BBC 2


The most interesting point made in this programme – involving the re-enactment of the lives of a working-class family in Bradford in the inter-war years – was that rent took up one-tenth of a typical working-class family’s income in 1919, compared to one-third now.  That said an awful lot.   A lot of the rest of it was pretty hackneyed stuff about how hard life was back in the day, especially during the Depression, but how much greater community spirit was … but the fact that something’s been said a million times before and become rather clichéd doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.

Yes, all right, we’ve all seen the Monty Python sketches about how hard life used to be, and heard grumpy old men saying that people today don’t know they’re born, but it is actually true.  The programme started off with the post Great War boom, then went through the difficult years of the early 1920s, things looking up later on in the decade, then the horrendous struggles of the industrial North during the Depression – including the hated means test – before life looked up again in the late 1930s.  It was quite a roller-coaster, and, of course, the bad times were especially bad for the mother, who was working full time in a mill whilst she had work, and then having to do all the housework as well, trying desperately to feed her family when there was practically no money for food.

We have heard it all before, and it has become clichéd, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again, partly as a reminder of what happened in the recent past and partly because a lot of it is relevant to today.  People like my grandparents, and great-aunts and great-uncles, who lived through the Depression in the industrial North, and then lived through rationing, spent the rest of their lives being careful not to waste anything, and that’s something that’s being lost now.  There’s so much waste these days.  Then, on the other hand, we’re supposed to be an affluent society now and yet in some ways we’ve gone back to those times.  It’s great that, when I go to put something in the food bank box as I leave Tesco, it’s always full, but there were no food bank boxes ten years ago, and there shouldn’t be any need for them now. How have we gone back to the days of so many people not being able to put food on the table?   And we were also told that the two daughters would have to move down south to take jobs as housemaids, and that the number of domestic servants, which you tend to think of as falling after the Great War, actually increased in the 1930s, as the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened – something else that’s happening again.

There wasn’t all that much talk about the food itself, except that there was a lot of bread, and things like tripe.  I was expecting most of the programme to be about food, but it really wasn’t!

So, what about the more positive aspects?  Community spirit.  That’s another cliché – that everyone used to pull together, and you used to be able to leave your back door open all day, etc etc, but, again, it’s rooted in truth.  That’s something that we could do with getting back to.  More family time.  There wasn’t much mention of music or dancing, maybe because no-one in the family was a young adult and it was mainly young adults who went dancing, but the family did acquire a wireless once it got to 1939 (my grandad, right up until he died in 1987, insisted on referring to a radio as a “wireless” and a record player as a “gramophone”) we did see the family going to the pictures – not to see any of the well-known Hollywood stars of the era, but to see good old George Formby!  I once went for a birthday afternoon tea at a posh hotel in Blackpool, and it was hosting the annual convention of the Ukulele Society of Great Britain – yes, there is one!  Good old George :-).

Speaking of Blackpool, we saw the family having a break there.  I love Blackpool.  It gets me really upset when people make snooty comments about it.  It is the most amazing place, and I defy anyone not to feel happy after spending a day there!   It was great to hear the three kids say how much they’d enjoyed it.

We also got to see the parents enjoying a day out rambling.  Eating Kendal Mint Cake and singing Ilkley Moor.   This was a right Northern do J.  And the best thing about the rambling scenes was Anita Rani talking about the Kinder Scot Trespass.  The Kinder Scout Trespass, and the whole movement around it, was amazing.  A load of snooty landowners and gamekeepers being put in their places by little Benny Rothman from Cheetham Hill!   Let’s never forget the importance of what The Ramblers’ Association did back then.

I’d like to have seen a mention of the Jarrow Crusade as well, because that does say so much about the experiences of much of the industrial North during the Depression (and I’m saying that despite the traumatic events at St James’ Park yesterday afternoon … although I’ll just Mancunianise it a bit by pointing out that Jarrow’s MP at the time was Ellen Wilkinson), but I suppose there was only so much they could fit into an hour-long programme.   Anyway, just thinking about that, and the Kinder Scout Trespass … people did seem to be a lot better at making their point in the 1930s than they are now.  Maybe everyone’s too busy writing things on Twitter these days.  Or maybe everyone’s too disillusioned: organise a Kinder Scout Trespass or a Jarrow Crusade now, and the metropolitan elite’d be saying that the participants were all stupid and didn’t realise what they were doing, and that everything they said should be ignored.  Or maybe it’s lack of leadership.  Things just don’t seem to get done any more, somehow.

And the one bit that really did my head in was Sara Cox expressing surprise that the family had books in their house, because she apparently thought that working-class people in 1919 would be illiterate.  I just cannot believe that a woman of the same age as me, from Bolton, would have thought that!

This is a six-part series, and it’s a shame that the inter-war years all got squashed into one episode, whereas the more recent decades, which most people are going to be far more familiar with, are going to be spread out over five episodes.  But it was really much more interesting than I’d expected.  Re-enactment programmes can be a bit naff, but this one was really good.


3 thoughts on “Back In Time For Tea – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    I now live in Australia, where we rarely get to see those interesting programs. When I’m back in England visiting aging relatives they still say “I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea”. How lovely! What about the old-fashioned cleanliness of working-class folk? Polishing the front door-step. Who does that now? Those posh people who still employed domestic staff weren’t always that far South. I’m thinking of Cheshire! Anyway, thanks for another great review!


    • Aww, thank you so much 🙂 . I don’t think they even still make those stones that people used for polishing the front door step with. They were called donkey stones round here, which I think was because the rag and bone man used to sell them when he came round with his donkey-drawn cart … no rag and bone men any more.


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