With Who’s Been Sleeping In My House? showing on ABC and Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS, biographical quest television is having its moment, and I’m so glad. Each week on My House, presenter Adam Ford researches the past of an Australian house. This season has gone from a former hotel in country Victoria, to a flat in Sydney, to Adelaide, to north Queensland, and most recently to Mt Lawley, an inner-city suburb in Perth.
It’s an interesting show, and overall it’s well produced. It’s unearthed some fascinating stories. But while hoping it has a big audience and inspires people to think more about the past, my criticism of the show is that it has drunk too deeply of the reality-TV format, and is less intelligent than it should be. In this week’s episode, a former Freemason hall has been bought out by a couple who have renovated it beautifully. Yet the show doesn’t even spend a couple of minutes to give a brief account of the decline of Freemasonry. It seems a key historical question to explore. The format of each show is to throw up two (or perhaps three) mysteries and then interweave the solving of them. This one asks, “What was the mysterious checkerboard in the secret room?” Adam tracks down an elderly Freemason willing to talk, who gives a one sentence answer, “It simply represents the ups and downs of life.” Oh, mystery solved.
At the beginning of each episode, Adam declares himself to be an archaeologist, yet there seems to be very little archaeology involved, and a lot more historical research and finding living people with a connection to the house. My wife pointed out that this week he finally had an archaeological challenge – the nature of two large concrete blocks buried in the backyard, only to not use his archaeological skills on them at all, and explain them with the insights of an amateur military historian.
In my MA thesis, I wrote a chapter on the challenge of representing the drama of archival research in a digital age. This show wrestles with it too, and in one of the episodes this season, Adam makes a big deal of going to the State Library with its filmic atmosphere only to quite obviously find the article he was looking for on the Trove website, something he could have done at his desk at home. It’s an understandable choice, but is indicative of a continual staginess borrowed from reality TV – deaf to ironies or subtle poignancies, but going in hard with dramatic music and hyping things up.
The first episode featured the old Merton Inn in Victoria, built in the 1860s, and painstakingly restored by the current owners. The show lingered over the restorations, which made it feel almost nihilistic when a notice at the end of the show declared that subsequent to filming, the building was burnt to the ground. They should have returned, to tell that story as well, but probably funding didn’t permit it.
I hope one day to properly research who’s been sleeping in my house, a 1920s cottage. I have some names, but need to spend more time on it. My friend Clare is revising a pamphlet on researching your house for the Heritage Council – I will be checking it out.
I get the gist of your point Nathan, but archaeology is not just the study of stuff , it is also about the culture of stuff and since it’s inception as an academic field, has been about drawing conclusions about culture based on the evidence of stuff. Having said that, I too get disappointed sometimes with the lcd nature of the programme, but I think it’s aim is to promote history and get people interested in their own backyards and hopefully it will work.
Nathan Hobby said:
Thanks for your thoughts Jenn. I agree with you about archaeology except that I thought the “stuff” it studies tends to mean not-so-much documents and people? I don’t really mind if he’s an archaeologist-by-training taking a historical approach, but it just seems an incongruity. As you say, if the show gets people interesting in their backyards, hooray!
Yep it’s an interesting one Nathan, ephemera does play a part in archaeological research but obviously is not “ancient”. This discussion reveals the overlap between archaeology and social history in a modern context. The excavation of an ancient site aims to reveal the social history of the people who lived there at one particular time, methinks Adam is doing this using modern media 🙂
I agree with your comments on the programme – I’ve only watched a few episodes and found them a bit light touch to bother with watching many. I really enjoyed the Mt Lawley episode however, as a West Australian I found it really interesting, and I loved the gathering of ladies who’d once worked at the HQ. But I also groaned at the State Library bit, with the Trove article, and at the rather tortuous searching of the online catalogue in the National Archives. I did reflect however, that I guess what the director was trying to do was make research look interesting for an onlooker, which is probably almost impossible!
The programme has the feel of a show which would be interesting for high school students, but I agree with the frustration that it does not go deeper on the historical issues it raises. I was looking forward to learning more about the elusive Masons, but was disappointed. WDYTYA has the benefit of a longer programme so can go a bit deeper, and they also use a wide array of experts and historians to flesh out stories and histories – which is something which I think would enhance Who’s Been Sleeping in my House.
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Nathan Hobby said:
Good point about the length of Who Do You Think You Are – it does allow a little more exploration. I was impressed by the reunion of the war ladies too – must have taken an effort to track them down and bring them together, and it was a special moment. As you say, making research (or thinking or writing) look interesting is hard. There probably are more subtle alternatives though. Moving away from the presenter/researcher for readings from the archives, for example, has been used to good effect in other docos.