Television: Housekeeping, or how to keep up with the mess next door

Why is `Video Nation' peeping at our domestic habits? By Beverly Pagram
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I had a book on cleaning published last year. It was called Natural Housekeeping, and contained all manner of eco-friendly household tips culled from ye olde household manuals of yore. I mention it because of the passions it raised in the bosoms of hitherto mild-mannered folk. On radio and in print some people claimed I was trying to nullify years of women's liberation by getting them to clean their houses with a lemon. A reporter from the Daily Telegraph took a quaint old quote from the book rather too literally and expressed a dim view of advice on how to bleach linen with moonbeams trapped in a cucumber. This insight into quite how seriously people take their housekeeping rituals (or deliberate lack of same), was underlined by a viewing of the new series of Video Nation, which started a 10-week run last week on BBC2.

"Coming Clean - The Truth About Housework" is the umbrella title for this latest compilation of footage shot with camcorders in the homes of the general public across the country, and it really digs the dirt on this area of domestic combat. Video Nation, now in its fifth year, has slowly but surely wormed its way into the subconscious of the viewing public; we are used now to through-the-keyhole, five-minute insights into the way a multi-cultural Britain thinks about matters both crucial and inconsequential. The winner last year of the Commission for Racial Equality's Race in the Media Award and the European Prix Iris, Video Nation has made itself into a national treasure by offering its 10,000 hours of cross-referenced videotapes, covering hundreds of subjects, to the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive, a valuable, unique picture of fin-de-siecle Britain.

There are, of course, problems inherent in giving members of the public a camera and merely vestigial filming training. This new series, for example, is in a longer, 15-minute format, and frankly, now and again, one yearns for an arty tracking-shot of fluff rolling like tumbleweeds across the floor, or a zoom close-up of that spectacular blob of chip fat on the ceiling. Talking heads can get on your wick and cause spectacular nodding-off problems, but they just made my eyes and ears stand out on stalks during last week's debut Video Nation offering, "A Mug's Game".

Jennifer Grimshaw is a retired businesswoman living in a London high- rise flat. Wearing a smart two-piece and costume jewellery she stood in the middle of squalor and cobwebs that would have made Miss Havisham weep with shame, and gave forth in clipped tones on the virtues of her grot. Basically she said that a woman's work is never done, certainly not by her. "I don't wash up. I do not scrub, I don't defrost my fridge ... if I do it's because I can't get into the ice-making compartment. I think housework is a mug's game and we're conditioned into doing it." Ms Grimshaw's breathtaking chutzpah was nearly matched by the home lifestyle of one Ian Hinde, a London warehouse assistant who seemed to be a devotee of Quentin Crisp's no-housework maxim that states that: "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse."

Mr Crisp's devotion to not washing-up led him to develop congealing detritus to a high art. "If you wait until it has hardened it looks like quite attractive varnish," he once told me airily, proffering a cream bun on a plate with a grotesque relief decoration of antique egg. "Botulism, schmotulism!" would have been embroidered on Mr Hinde's pinny, if he'd had one. "Look at the state of that!" he cried delightedly, making a sweeping gesture with his arm over a vista of filthy clothes, a carpet housing alien life forms, and a sinkful of dishes like a stagnant pond.

If Video Nation is anything to go by, the cliche of the disgusting bachelor pad is about to be overturned - for if Ms Grimshaw and Leeds student Vicky Keane are an example, the female of the species certainly can be very much dirtier than the male. Vicky lives in a house-share with some other girls, but this isn't Friends, and slobby Vic is no doppelganger for Monica, the hygiene-obsessed Courteney Cox character. "This is my bedroom. Mess everywhere! Lovely!" she boasted.

Ian would have been amazed. His is a traditional home-life view: "It doesn't look right, a bloke pushing a Hoover round. Women enjoy doing housework. They dust and that. They love it, don't they, really?" If he watches Video Nation over the next nine weeks all his preconceptions will go out of the (very unwashed) window.

In next week's offering, "Just So", for example, London food writer Alistair Hendry dusts his cacti and plays them meditation music. Alistair's apartment is so minimalist and perfect it makes architect John Pawson's famously impeccable pad look like the lounge bar at the Vic after a punch-up. It is fab voyeurism being able to perv round this shrine courtesy of Video Nation. For God's sake the man's only got a cream-coloured sofa, a glass table and some large immaculate stones and he's worried that his cleaner hasn't lustrated and purged the place enough. At one point we see him prostrate, peering at the pristine, gleaming floor under his flawless sofa. "It doesn't look too good, does it?" he says, gazing at some invisible germs.

Housework, and conflict over who is going to do it, is apparently one of the top three reasons why people go to marriage-guidance counsellors. It is interesting, therefore, to see the forthcoming Video Nation film "Couples", in which we meet Gabriel and Tikvah Lock, north London Orthodox Jews who divide up the daily chores according to the laws of the Torah. Tikvah doesn't give up the battle of the sexes without a struggle, however. When Gabriel tells her that "part of your enjoyment in life is doing the housework", she regards him sourly, hands on hips, and chews some gum like a character from Mr Saatchi's "Neurotic Realism" collection of paintings.

She might enjoy housework more if, like Mary Durling in the forthcoming "Good Life" film, she lived in a one-room, straw-bale house at the Tinker's Bubble camp in Somerset instead of in a Tottenham semi. Mary built her house herself, and is resigned to both sweeping up straw fairly constantly and having few possessions or mod cons. "I don't think it's a fair swap ... the life you have to live to get all the money to buy all the stuff," she says sagely, drinking tea from an enormous black kettle.

However small your house is, there are always housework problems. In "Kid's Rooms", which goes out at the beginning of next month, we see tiny Sylvanian Family bears and squirrels sitting primly up to dinner round a table laid with an irreproachably dainty hanky in a neat, wee sitting room. "Here's my doll's house. I'm afraid it's a bit messy," apologises Hannah Fyfe, six, a Northumberland lass.

Cut to laddish fellas Casey and Cai Gratze, aged 9 and 10, from Bristol. You know at once, on seeing their impish faces beneath Beau Geste caps, that they would not provide a safe house for Sylvanian Family refugees. Perched high on bunk beds above veritable congeries of Lego, dirty jeans and old sweet wrappers, they give a view of clearing up that would, no doubt, bring a loud "Hurrah!" to the throats of Miss Grimshaw and Mr Hinde. "We just don't care, do we? If people fall over it, well they fall over it, they ain't got good eyesight!"