Following the success of its '1900 House', Channel 4 is reviving rationing and air-raids, reports Christina Zaba.
To many children, the Second World War seems impossibly remote. Despite the fact that many of us still live in Thirties and Forties houses, and the war continues to be a living memory, it's still hard to get a sense of what it was really like. Life has moved on; the past, as L P Hartley famously said, is a foreign country.
Except that it isn't - it's right under our feet, and all around us. Memories exist in the community; documents, artefacts, records are there for the taking, all useful when delivering "Britain since 1930" at key stage 2. But how do you make them come alive?
A new Channel 4 series can help. 1940s House, to be shown for four weeks next month, takes viewers into wartime conditions as a modern family re-enacts daily life of the early Forties. It follows on from last year's immensely successful 1900 House, in which the nation was transfixed as a 20th-century woman struggled with a 19th-century corset, This time the year is 1939 and the Hymers family - grandma (Lyn), grandpa (Michael), single mum Kirstie and her two boys Ben, 10, and Tom, seven - have moved into 17 Braemar Gardens, a Thirties semi in West Wickham, Kent. It's immaculately decorated, furnished and equipped as it would have been at the beginning of the war. It's all a long way - literally and metaphorically - from the Hymers' real home in Otley, near Leeds.
The result is gripping television, which, like its predecessor, has a cross-generational appeal. Adults will relate to the struggles of the family to keep to the rules set by the period, from rationing to cooking and shopping on a strict budget; while children will be engrossed - my 11-year-old certainly was - by the experiences of the boys.
Plenty to get your teeth into, then, especially if you're covering the period in class. But the series isn't just a dry resource; it's also a living spectacle - which brings its own pitfalls and attractions.
"There's always something of a conflict of interest between the need to make entertainment and the need to be informative," admits historian Guy de la Bedoyere, one of the so-called "War Cabinet" which appears in the programmes to monitor the family and set them new tasks and challenges.
"But I hope 1940s House goes some way to remind us of how lucky we are. We all knew we couldn't recreate the real sense of motivation which kept people going between 1939 and 1945, but I hope people who were there will have a chance to relive something of the atmosphere of the time."
For those taking part it was quite an experience - something which comes across clearly in the programmes.
"I miss it terribly now that I'm back home," admits Lyn Hymers, a former tax inspector, who learns to bake cakes for the first time in her life under the watchful eye of the camera as wartime rationing begins to bite.
"I've learnt such a lot about what it must have been like, even though we didn't have the real worries of invasion or danger. Wartime was hard, there were shortages, and you were under constant strain; but you got on with it. I think in some ways it was better for the children than life today. Ben and Tom didn't have their Playstations - they had to use their imaginations and a few props instead - but to me they seemed healthier and happier. They certainly whinged less than usual."
Tom agrees. "I think the home holidays you took in the 1940s must have been a lot of fun," he says. "I didn't like some of the food, and leaving my friends behind was hard, but ow I'm back I miss my sword and shield. In the 1940s house we had lots to do. I liked making a puppet theatre and planting seeds in the vegetable garden."
"I think we've got too many choices nowadays," adds Lynne. "In the 1940s house we found out that you don't really need all the modern trappings. We had to appreciate simple things."
It sounds idyllic, but the programmes make it clear that life wasn't all sunshine. As the weeks pass we see strains and arguments, tears of frustration, crises in shop and kitchen, hunger and making-do; the panic at the sound of the air-raid siren, the damp and cold of the home-made Anderson shelter.
Although not part of Channel 4's schools programming, the series was devised with the needs of the classroom very much in mind. It would make a useful supporting resource for the key stage 3 optional special study "The Home Front", especially in its detailed and accessible exploration of women's experiences during the war. But its main applicability is to the key stage 2 classroom, where it can be used to explore rationing, to learn about the effect of war on people's lives, and especially to see the differences between then and now in many areas, from food and household chores to play and media.
Throughout the four programmes there are ample departure points for work in the classroom. Whether it's carrying out interviews with Second World War survivors (Lyn Hymers, volunteering in an old people's home, is greeted with a cheery "How lovely to see a uniform again!"), working out your food allowance (the amount of butter, meat and sugar they're allowed in a week comes as a shock to the Hymers), or comparing recreation and amusements then and now (the Hymers enjoy dancing to the American big band sound towards the end of the war), the programmes can awaken interest and understanding. The 1940s House Activity Book can also help. "It's not a teaching pack," says the author, John Malam, "but we have written it to fit in with the history requirements of the national curriculum. We found that there weren't many books containing hands-on activities about the Second World War for this age group that were also information-led. So that's what we set out to create."
From puzzles to wartime games, from diary-writing to guidance on interviewing and recording, the book contains a wealth of activities for the junior school teacher while also presenting key information in a clear and accessible way.
"I think children are interested in the Second World War," says John Malam, "perhaps because there are so many things in their lives, even in their own families, that date back to that time."
Guy de la Bedoyere isn't surprised by the popularity of the Second World War in the curriculum. "It still remains the most potent historical event of the last century," he says. "Its shadow is still cast across all our lives. We still look to it for our heroes and our villains, the ultimate horrors as well as the best people are capable of."
It's a comment the Hymers, after their nine-week immersion, would heartily endorse. And they should know: they've been there.
A documentary about the making of the series will be broadcast on January 2 at 8.30pm. The four-part series starts on Thursday January 4 at 8.30pm. The series website goes live today (December 29), at www.channel4.co.uk1940house.'The 1940s House' (Channel 4 Books pound;20); 'The 1940s House Activity Book' (pound;4.99)An exhibition to tie in with the series, including the house itself and background information on the series, is at the Imperial War Museum, London, until June 3