“What actually is mass observation?”
I have no earthly idea how this passed me by first time round containing as it does, two of my favourite things: the experience of everyday people in the Second World War and national treasure Victoria Wood. That Housewife, 49 was also written by Wood makes it even more remarkable I missed it, but catching it on the tv was one of those experiences that simply filled me with warmth, joy and a fair few tears as I utterly loved it.
It is based on the real-life wartime diaries of Nella Last (played here by Wood herself) , a Barrow-in-Furness housewife recovering from a nervous breakdown who participates in a national scheme to document the lives of normal people – Mass Observation – as a way of helping her recovery. Society is rather unforgiving of her inability to ‘cope’ especially as war starts, her marriage to the taciturn ’Daddy’ is constrictive and it is only when she is persuaded to give voluntary work a try by her younger son, that she finds the opportunity to slowly flourish as her confidence is built and she becomes an integral and vital part of the community.
Each stage of her journey is beautifully and tenderly played with such heart-rending emotion by Victoria Wood who really emerges as a first-rate actress here that it is just gorgeous to watch. The contrast between her initial terror at being outside – especially when faced with the snobbery of local posh ladies portrayed deliciously by Sylvestra Le Touzel, Marcia Warren and Stephanie Cole – and the normality she feels when bustling around the safe environs of her home and family is perfectly pitched, making one feel for anyone who suffered/suffers from mental illness in the face of a lack of understanding. And as Stephanie Cole’s indomitable Mrs Waite spots the potential in her and encourages out of her shell, the complex friendship that grows between these two women is also a joy to watch.
But the best part of the show was the relationship between Nella and her younger son Cliff which was simply one of the most beautiful and affecting things I’ve seen on screen in ages. There’s a special connection between these two, he understands just how difficult life is for his mum and he also has his own struggles in not fitting into the model of masculine behaviour demanded by society, and the empathy between Wood and Christopher Harper is transcendentally stunning, even as Cliff comes to visit with his special friend James and Nella doesn’t quite grasp the significance of the relationship. But as this is wartime, I shared the heavy-heartedness with which she waved goodbye to him, knowing that it could well be for the last time and the way in which war changes Cliff and their relationship is simply heartbreaking to watch, yet completely compelling.
Bonus appearances from Siân Brooke, Jason Watkins and Daisy Haggard kept the thesp count enjoyably high, though David Threlfall as Nella’s emotionally constipated husband and Lorraine Ashbourne as his equally dour sister were particularly memorable as the epitome of buttoned-up Englishness. But for all the wry comedy in here alongside the raw emotion, there’s no denying the importance of this as a piece of social history, documenting what ‘normal’ people went through during wartime and the price they had pay that is rarely recognised as they were at the forefront of the action: there’s such a powerful scene where a bereaved mother begs her friends to tell her how their sons are doing as she stills wants to know how they are and people have been avoiding mentioning their children around her. Moments like these speak of true authenticity and thus hit with a power greater than fiction ever could, and so Victoria Wood should be commended (again) for creating such a sensitive drama from Nella Last’s diary that may be unassuming yet is undeniably one of the finest pieces of television I’ve seen in the last ten years.