History on a Plate.

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A review of Back in Time for Dinner.  First programme (of six) (1950s) shown on BBC2 8pm 17th March 2015 and continuing.

[The first episode can be seen on the iPlayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05nc7ph/back-in-time-for-dinner-1-1950s]

The first impression of the Back in Time for Dinner is that it is knock about stuff, good fun but no more.  The concept is that a family, the Robshaws, live through the years 1950 to 2000 following the eating habits, and more generally the household routines, of each year.  Thus, this first instalment sees mother Rochelle staying at home and serving her family bread and dripping, father Brandon eating alone when he returns form work and daily shops for fresh food for the fridge-less kitchen.

But under this surface there is a more serious historical intent.  This is material history: an attempt to rediscover what it felt like to live in this period of recent history, particularly through its food.  The bulk of this first programme is focused on the impact of rationing, still severe in 1950 and not entirely lifted until 1954.  Of course, an exercise like this cannot fully recover the emotional response to food.  For much of the working class, a staple diet of bread and dripping supplemented with potatoes was no change from the pre-war years.  As the programme comments, for this group rationing allowed an improvement in diet.  The Robshaws were much more like a middle class family for whom rationing meant privation.

The historical spine of the programme is mainly provided by the use of the government’s National Food Survey, a yearly sample (based on week-long household diaries) of the eating habits of the nation.  The meals that family eat are, on the whole, taken from this source.  The kitchen is equipped to prevailing standards of the time, as is the rest of the Robshaws’ home.  The results are notable in the restrictive nature of rationing, but also the gradual liberation that followed on the end of rationing and the gathering consumer boom of the later in the 1950s.

The downside of the programme is that it is plagued by small and careless faults.  Perhaps it is of little importance that 1951 is introduced by father reading a paper with a headline “General Smuts dead”: Smuts died in September 1950.  Other faults, however, are more important.  Liver is shown as being part of the meat ration, but offal and sausages were only rationed from 1942 to 1944.  The end of rationing is presented as a big bang in 1954, although it was more gradual, for example with confectionary coming off ration in February 1953 and sugar September 1953.  The family would have been entitled to one egg each (if available) per week, not one between them.  Bacon is shown as an end of rationing treat, but was a separate item on the ration from 1940 onwards.  Clearance Birdseye did not discover fast freezing by accident but was shown how to do by Inuit people.  I am no expert, but there may be somewhat less regard to the clothing worn (they appear to have far too much of it) than the food prepared.  You can predict that the programme makers will get carried away in the wardrobe department in the 1960s and 70s.

Despite these slight flaws, this remains an interesting insight into the textures and structures of everyday life in Britain’s recent past.  What is most telling is the physical change in the face of mother Rochelle as the weight of the housework falls on her.  More generally, as Fernand Braudel demonstrates in his Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries, understanding what people ate can be a window to their material world (the French title of the book sums up this perspective more accurately: Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle)This programme shows that if you want to understand the early 1950s, you must eat “national bread” spread with pork dripping – history doesn’t get tougher than this.

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One response to “History on a Plate.

  1. Pingback: History on a Plate.  | British Contemporary History

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