INTERVIEW: Dr Suzannah Lipscomb on new documentary ‘Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home’
The years after the fall of Nazi Germany saw a revolutionary period of change across the globe, particularly in Britain. The subsequent economic recovery in Europe saw more individuals than ever before define themselves as middle class and enjoy the luxuries that status and money brought with it – but few recognised the dangers they had brought into their homes.
In new documentary ‘Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home’, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb uncovers the household dangers that caught families of the 1950s unaware – to drastic consequences. We met up with historian, author and television presenter to talk about the new documentary, which airs on BBC Four this Wednesday, May 25 at 8pm.
Why did you choose the post-war period?
There were lots of periods we’d like to look at but this one felt quite compelling because the 50s is such a pivotal decade of change – after the drabness of war, and the removal of rations, and the brightness and colour of affluence and optimism. Introducing all these [new] things into the home, it’s a really domestic period. And yet many of those things are dangerous – it was perfect for our series basically.
Were you surprised how many killers in the home there were in a more modern period than your other shows?
Yes, absolutely! The 50s house that we’re using is a very beautiful house, but it does remind me very much the houses of my grandparents. I think most people will be familiar with a house like this, and the fact that there are quite so many things that are so dangerous is astonishing actually. In fact, what’s most worrying about it is that there are several strands where I think these things remain dangerous, so in some ways it’s a sort of health and safety programme.
It’s actually quite striking how many of the things that effected families in the 1950s are still dangerous, for example preparing chicken…
I’ve been washing my hands a lot. There’s nothing like seeing the bacteria on those petri dishes to make you really convinced to the value of washing your hands!
Do you think new things seemed less dangerous which actually made them more dangerous? For example, in the old days people would be aware of dangers like fire.
Absolutely. I think the appearance of modernity is deceptive. Even with things like the sofas: [a family buys a] beautiful new sofa, and then it’s made of material that’s flammable. I think the appearance of being brilliantly modern makes you think that they’re safe.
Was there also trust in the manufacturer as well?
Advertising has been around since the Victorian period but this is the age where you have the first advertising on television. It’s a booming age of advertising and it’s very simplistic from our point of view when we look back at it – “Buy this, it’s good!”
I never like to say about past periods that they’re more gullible than us, because I think we’re very gullible to all sorts of things – I believe it when the shampoo says it’s going to do XY and Z for my hair, I have no idea – I think they’re just going along with what they’re told.
Do you think the manufacturers should have taken more responsibility?
One of the things that has to be said for the 50s is that consumers start demanding responsibility from the manufacturers. It was when Which? magazine started and we have a consumer association starting, so there is a sense that they’re kind of wising up to requiring that from a manufacturer, but I suppose we’re all kind of a bit gullible about new things.
Whenever we do this we say what are they going to say about us? Is it going to be the WiFi? “Did you know that they live within WiFi all the time?” “Do you know they held mobile phones right up to their heads – and slept with them next to them?”
Did anything shock you more than anything else?
When we went to look at those chemistry sets, my word! It was just extraordinary what people – boys mainly – could do in the safety of their own bedrooms.
It’s very sobering, isn’t it? Because it is fun to watch but then you also reveal the consequences.
It’s an interesting tone with these programmes, because we’re moving from things that are actually genuinely funny – because it’s absolutely ridiculous – to fatalities and trying to keep those two things [separate]. We want to have a sense of fun and not be too earnest because otherwise it does become a health and safety programme, but actually realising that these things are important and real and that there were consequences.
Is it most fun for you doing the experiments?
The experiments are really fun for me because what’s really different about this is that we were originally commissioned through a science stream at BBC Four, which is unusual because I’m a historian and so it’s very science-heavy here. And obviously [despite] what I might know and think and read up about the period, I generally don’t know anything about science really. I stopped science at GCSE. So whenever I go and meet these scientists, I am being absolutely dazzled by new information and I think that works in TV terms because I don’t have to go along and pretend to not know.
How would you sell this show to someone who wasn’t a fan of history?
I’d say this is an astonishing story of these deadly dangers in the home that are in living memory and actually many of them still in the house. So frankly, it’s kind of must see really because who knows what you might be putting yourself in danger of. And also we blow things up.