IF WALLS COULD TALK: THE BATHROOM – Wednesday 20th April, 9pm, BBC4
After David Starkey revealed himself to be a mean-spirited old git on Jamie’s Dream School, it’s nice to know that not all TV historians are miserable old draconians. Proof comes in the form of Lucy Wolsley, chief curator of the Royal Palaces and all-round lovely, sunny person who brings history to life in a variety of swishy historical dresses. The series explores the function of each room in the house over the last few hundred years, and this week it’s the turn of the humble bathroom, which, if you were a medieval serf might mean a communal bench with a few holes in it, or, if you were a Georgian laa-di-daa lady, a… bowl of warm water. We’ve come a long way in the last century.
Lucy’s brand of ‘living history’ sees her washing Tudor-style for a week (read: not washing) to bring to light our historical relationship with personal hygeine, and pummeling linen sheets with urine, as well as walking around in some fabulous period costumes which may or may not allow the wearer to spend a penny.
Lucy explains that people have always needed to wash and use the toilet, but they just haven’t always had washing facilities or toilets. In the days before wet wipes, hand sanitiser and body spray, everyone was a bit pongy. No shock there. In medieval times people freshened up in huge nudey steam baths, which, judging from the reconstruction in some modern-day baths, had a bit of a 70s-commune kind of vibe. They later turned into brothels, so, bit less appealing to go and wash your julies in.
The Tudors, using logic suspiciously like the ‘science bit’ in a Loreal ad, beleieved that washing opened your pores and let in devilish diesease. So, they didn’t do it. Yuck. Lucy tries the same for a week, wearing clean linen each day (as they did) instead of a morning shower, and gets slowly grubbier and more depressed. Again, not much of a shock, but a valiant effort to bring us closer to our pungent ancestors. Victorian peasants couldn’t afford toilet paper, so they used any old bit of scrap paper, which is where we get the word ‘bumf’ from – short for bum fodder.
If you, like me, have gotten most of your historical knowledge from QI and Horrible Histories, than you’ll enjoy the clever detail and personal approach of this series. It’s far from a stale Starkian lecture, which usually inspires me to start texting furiously and scratching RHIANNON 4 BIEBER on the living room coffee table. The final segment has her reclining, cocktail in hand, in a 1930s marble bath in London’s posh Claridge’s hotel. As she enthuses about the modern attitude towards the bathroom – a place to indulge, relax, lock yourself away – you can’t help but thank your lucky stars you weren’t born before the invention of bubble bath, bog roll and shower gel.