Last Night's Viewing: The House the 50s Built, Channel 4 Playhouse Presents: The Man, Sky Arts 1

 

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The Independent Culture

Brendan Walker, presenter of The House the 50s Built, looks as if he's in training for a Wayne Hemingway-lookalike competition. He's got a strenuously characterful pair of glasses with celluloid side panels, quirky sideburns and that trademark bald'n'buzz-cut tonsure.

Curiously, last night's programme actually had a very brief appearance from Wayne Hemingway himself, as if for purposes of comparison, and you'd have to say he's currently looking less like Wayne Hemingway than Professor Walker does. None of which is really relevant to Channel 4's latest exercise in domestic cultural history but sometimes these things get a grip of you.

The series is about the large social transformations that took place in British homes between the Forties and the Sixties, as rationing and austerity petered out and engineers turned their attentions from mass destruction to the problems of daily lives. And, barring the chronic infantilisation that afflicts so many television programmes these days and the dim-witted conviction that celebrities can be sprinkled on anything, like MSG, it's moderately interesting. Walker works his way through the chief innovations of the Fifties – from Formica to frozen food – giving garden-shed demonstrations of some of the industrial processes involved and talking to people about how arduous it was to use a mangle.

One surprise was just how pricey a mod-con could be. The early Kenwood Chef cost £20 at a time when the average salary was £300 a year, meaning that it took nearly a month's wages to pay for one. A twin-tub washing machine cost as much as a small car and a decent-sized fridge would set you back over £1,200 in current prices. We weren't give the price for an electric toaster, but I'm assuming that possession of one would have resulted massive boasting rights and an invitation to the neighbours to come and witness the marvel of bread turning brown on both sides at once.

Two neglected histories were raised into the light here. That of the engineer entrepreneurs who brought these devices to market (take a bow, Kenneth Wood, father of the multi-purpose mixer, and Daniel O'Connor and Herbert Faber, who invented Formica) and that of the housewives, who had previously provided the only power source for the domestic machine. It was calculated that the average women worked a 75-hour week, much of it in the heavy industry of scrubbing and washing. And although, as Fay Weldon reminded you, women had to secure these tools of emancipation by old-fashioned means of wheedling and cajoling, their arrival meant they could finally apply themselves to more interesting tasks: "You had time to think, time to agitate and time to become a feminist."

Sky Arts' Playhouse Presents series continues to throw up intriguing little films, the latest of which was an unexpected political drama written by Sandi Toksvig. It began enigmatically, as a bright young Harvard economist turned up for a meeting at a grand country house. Scion of an ancient banking family, she is there to meet "The Man" and, apparently, to be inducted into a secretive element of the family business. Stephen Fry and Zoë Wanamaker played eccentric functionaries and Stellan Skarsgård was The Man himself, ultimately revealing the existence of a Bilderberg-type conspiracy, in which unelected magi manipulate world events for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

Having your central character say, "I feel like I'm in some kind of fucking Dan Brown novel", isn't quite enough to defuse the tang of nuttiness in this plot, but the performances were excellent and the teasing indirection of the script (before it got to its sermonising bits about the International Monetary Fund) really beautifully done. When someone said "Ah... new blood..." at the beginning when the young woman walked in, I'd guessed that it might turn out to be a modern horror story, and, in a way, I suppose it was. Easily good enough, anyway, to justify another commission.

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