The best TV and radio programmes for family historians this January

By Editor, 3 January 2019 - 3:34pm

On TV this month, a group of children experience school from the past and modern-day artisans try to live and work according to Arts and Crafts principles

Back in Time for School
Pupils and teachers explore schooling from the past in Back in Time for School (Credit: Duncan Stingemore/ Wall to Wall/ BBC)

Pick of the month

Back in Time for School
Thursdays from 3 January, 8pm, BBC Two

It’s all too easy to take the idea of universal education for granted. However, the latest instalment of the ‘living history’ strand Back In Time, from Who Do You Think You Are? producers Wall to Wall, reminds us that it wasn’t always so, by sending 15 pupils and three teachers back to previous eras, starting with 1895.

“To be educated was a huge privilege,” Polly Russell, social historian and the show’s co-presenter with Sara Cox, tells WDYTYA? Magazine. “This was your chance – without education, people’s lives were incredibly bleak. I think the modern teens got a real sense of this, and understood that the children who were allowed to go to school, got in and stayed in school, were really lucky.”

The first programme recreates life in a higher-grade school, where the aim was, in Polly’s words, to “educate a generation of students to be industrial workers”. If that doesn’t sound much fun or a particularly lucky fate, it helps to remember that this was an era when just 4 per cent of children received a secondary-school education.

Moving forward in time, much of the education our forebears received now seems appallingly sexist. In the interwar period, while grammar-school boys applied themselves to science, girls were offered lessons in mothercraft: learning how to look after a baby. Needless to say, 21st-century girls don’t think much of such gender stereotyping. “To be fair, the boys in the series were very aware of the inequality, and uncomfortable with it as well,” says Polly.

In contrast, the episode that takes place in the 1970s delves into progressive ideas about education, such as the decade’s ‘free school’ ethos, which said that pupils shouldn’t be forced to attend lessons. While the time-travelling teachers appreciated the imaginative thinking about education here, they also had certain reservations. “They pretty much felt like the lunatics had taken over the asylum, and that they needed to rein in some control,” Polly reveals. “When the children were lounging about on beanbags listening to Pink Floyd, I think the teachers were thinking, ‘Come on, they’re not learning anything!’”

Nevertheless, even in the 21st century when exams and academic rigour are back in fashion, we haven’t abandoned every idea from the 1970s. “A lot of the ideology about children and parents having a voice, which was first mooted in the 1970s, we almost take for granted now,” Polly says.

Get more previews of this month's top TV in the January issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, on sale now


Also showing

The Battles that Won our Freedoms
Weekdays from Monday 7 January, 1.45pm, Radio 4

It’s easy to take freedoms for granted, yet most have been hard won, as this weekday series explores. Each programme begins with the personal testimony of someone who has benefited from the struggles of others in the past, and covers such subjects as the freedom of married women to own property and the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. 

The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts
Friday 11 January, BBC Two, 1/4

In the late 19th century a cadre of artists, designers and writers set their faces against industrialisation, and instead argued that a return to taking pride in handmade goods and self-sufficiency would make people happier. This was a political project, a way of rejecting the dehumanising effects of factory life and sprawling slums. But what was it like to live by the ideals of Arts and Crafts visionaries William Morris, John Ruskin and Gertrude Jekyll?

In this new ‘living history’ series, six modern-day craftspeople are challenged to set up a working community and breathe new life into an Arts and Crafts property. This means renovating four rooms, one per episode, according to Arts and Crafts principles. To succeed, they’ll need to use original source material to master such skills as making hand-printed wallpaper with natural dyes, crafting bespoke furniture, staining glass and binding books.

Finding My Family
Late January, CBBC

Scheduled to transmit around Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January), this Newsround Special follows 14-year-old Maggie, who sets out to trace her family history with the help of her grandfather, Steven Frank. It’s a story that takes in visits to Amsterdam, where Steven’s father was a member of the Dutch Resistance who helped people flee to Switzerland, and Poland, where he was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The duo also visit the Czech Republic, where Steven himself was held prior to beginning a new life in the UK. The film is narrated by the writer Anthony Horowitz, creator of the ITV drama Foyle’s War.


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