December 10, 2006
“My name is Nella Last and I’m sad and scared and I have nobody and I don’t know who I am and I feel like I’m behind a glass wall. My name is Nella Last. I suffer from nerves. I’m very cheery always in company. I cry all the time. I’m in my kitchen. I’ve not taken my coat off yet. It’s check. I had it made. I rather like it. I had a bad breakdown last year. I can’t imagine any of this will be of interest to you…”
How wrong you were, Mrs Last. Started in 1939 at her lonely kitchen table, Nella Last’s diary may not be the most prestigious account of life during wartime, nor the most dramatic. But, certainly, as presented by Victoria Wood in Housewife, 49, it’s one that strikes home with almost devastating emotional force, precisely for being so commonplace – so penetratingly human.
In 1939, Nella was a timid 49-year-old wife and mother, living in Barrow-in-Furness. Her husband was a distant model of British repression and, with her sons leaving home, leaving the silence ringing in the house, Nella felt increasingly isolated. She’d had that “bad breakdown.” She wandered like an anxious shadow. She had no one to talk to.
And then she found her voice. Nella responded to an advert placed by that splendidly insane, particularly British experiment in social research, Mass-Observation. Pursuing its mission to document the everyday lives of ordinary Britons, M-O was looking for volunteers to keep personal journals of life on the home front. Nella started writing tentatively; but seeing her thoughts set down, she began to probe them. Listening to herself, she realised she wanted to know more about herself, and that there was more to know.
In bringing her voice to the screen, Wood has gone beyond adaptation and into empathetic collaboration. At first glance, Housewife, 49, with its little town getting on with things as Hitler’s bombs start falling, looks like the usual ITV nostalgia, but it’s far more. Both in terms of surface details and underlying social mores, there is meticulous observation of the period. The programme is superb in generating a feeling of war being all around yet very far away, and suggesting the wrenching effects on Little Britain of being thrown out into the big world; a generation let “out of their matchboxes,” and never wanting to go back in.
But what Wood responds to most is Nella’s descriptions of feelings and fears that probably haven’t changed in 200 years. It’s a far more somber piece than she is best known for, and yet, with its beautifully drawn female characters, and its feel for the deep strangeness of mundane British life, it’s unmistakably her. And she can’t help writing funny lines; when Nella joins the local branch of the Woman’s Voluntary Service, run by the formidable Mrs Waite (Stephanie Cole, a standout in the fine ensemble), Woods creates an organisation like the WI via Dad’s Army. All the same, she never lets characters broaden into caricature, and her awareness of the class lines colliding in chilly church halls is acute.
Playing Nella herself, Wood gives a touching, measured performance. From the fragile, woman who can’t imagine her life is worth writing about, you see her growing, working out who she is, coming out from behind that glass wall. Opposite her, as Nella’s husband, Will, David Threlfall quietly performs a small, stiff miracle. He’s remote, grey and hateful – until he starts breaking your heart.
It’s the old cliché: ordinary people in extraordinary times. But it’s the people that matter most. Truly warmhearted without being mawkish, it confirms Wood as a treasure to value alongside Alan Bennett. Neither flash nor fashionable, just one of the finest dramas this year.