During World War II British citizens were encouraged to document their lives in order to give the social research agency, the Mass-Observation Archive, a picture of life in wartime England. In 1939 Nella Last, who lived in the industrial North West town Barrow-in-Furness, was 49 when she wrote her first entry, which she headed “Housewife, 49”. Last’s writing became one of the Archive’s most comprehensive diaries and has been called an important proto-feminist work.
Actor, comedienne and all round English institution Victoria Wood, who also starred and created the sitcom dinnerladies, adapted Last’s diaries for this English telemovie as well as portraying her. Wood does a terrific job embodying this shy and nervous woman whose writing and volunteer work provides a desperately needed outlet from the stifling life she leads with her overprotective and domineering husband.
This adaptation is itself an interesting snapshot of what it was like to live in wartime England where everyday concerns continued amidst the rationing, blackouts, bombing and fears for loved ones away at war. By focusing on one person’s struggle for happiness, Housewife, 49 gently personalises the ordinary people who lived through such extraordinary times.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 309, 2008