Back in 2005 ABC screened Outback House in which families lived like the inhabitants of an 1860s Australian sheep station. SBS also screened The Colony with families from England, Ireland and Australia living in a pioneer setting in the NSW bush.
TV immersing participants in historic recreations has also seen Colonial House, Frontier House, Turn Back Time: The High Street, Electric Dreams and more.
ABC’s Back in Time for Dinner now adopts similar principles, but with an emphasis on how food and cuisines have adapted over the years. One of the few international formats to be reworked for ABC (the original screened on LifeStyle), it spawned Back in Time for the Weekend / Christmas / Tea sequels.
Annabel Crabb is the tour guide of this 7 part series which sees one family, the Ferrones of Sydney, agree to spend several weeks living like a family from another decade. With their house made-over internally, they dispense with mod-cons, television, internet, phones and basic appliances.
The family comprises mum Carol, dad Peter, teens Julian & Sienna and 10 year old Olivia. In the Ferrone household it is Carol who is a career woman and Peter who cooks most of the family meals. But ‘transported’ back in time to the 1950s for episode 1, those roles are reversed as a shock to the system.
“I am quite independent,” Carol explains. “Perhaps I’m a bit naive thinking I won’t lose my independence.”
The house interior is colourfully made-over in gaudy ’50s decor and furniture, with room sizes diminished including a basic kitchen with an icebox for a fridge. It’s the room Carol is about to see from dawn til dusk, including hand-washing the family laundry. The first family meal, consisting of tripe and dripping on bread, does not go down well….
Peter gets to sit back and read newspapers or listen to LP records, while the kids are forced to make their own amusement, and Carol slaves over burnt toast and a gas oven. But young Olivia welcomes the time spent with her siblings.
“I think it might change because they won’t have technology and they won’t have anything to do,” she explains.
Each day marks a new year in the experience, and in 1951 as Peter cycles to work (in a suit, no less), the kids walk (shock!) to school, and poor Carol spends another day of relentless housework. It’s a punishing grind that brings her to tears. Her sole respite is a “Blue Hills” radio serial adding some entertainment into her day.
“I’m starting to realise how easily I’ve got it in 2018,” she admits. “I miss all my appliances that make my life easier.”
Gradually the meals improve, with leftovers -“It’s on the good side of mediocre, but it’s still mediocre,” says Julian- and spaghetti bolognese with the influx of Europeans in the mid 1950s.
Crabb regularly visits the family, joining in the fun, and narrates social history changes such as the first 58 day tour by Queen Elizabeth, the 1956 Olympics, television and the first family car.
Dawn Fraser drops by for a meal and to hear a radio call of an Olympic swim -it’s the first time Fraser has heard it herself. June Dally Watkins also makes a rare TV appearance. A family trip to a retro drive-in (Blacktown) and diner is also a good excuse for fun.
The series works well to recreate its era, with more decades, guests and social history to come. The Ferrone family proves personable and expressive, with mum Carol the stand-out for her honesty, vulnerability and likeability. Sometimes the kids overdo the reactions, perhaps at the behest of eager producers, when their natural skills are sufficient enough.
The key to the series is lesson-learning not reality manipulation. There’s little chance the Ferrones will find themselves at the centre of Sylvania Waters-like notoriety, which is another history lesson in itself.
Just don’t serve me the tripe, thanks.
Back in Time for Dinner premieres 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.