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The Woman’s Hour House

On Monday 1st October until 10th December 1956, Woman’s Hour launched a fortnightly programme series: “Castle in the Air”. Radio Times announced that: “Most women have definite ideas on the decoration and furnishing of a home; Woman’s Hour is now going to give them the opportunity of expressing their views”. Jeanne Heal introduced the series and discussed all aspects of room design and colour with professional and non-professional experts. To correspond with the transmission a questionnaire was printed in Radio Times, which the listener completed, cut out and sent in to the BBC. Unbeknown to the listeners, it had already been agreed between the organisers of the Ideal Home Exhibition and editorial staff of Woman’s Hour that a house would be provided the following March for the results to be turned into a reality. The “Winchester” House built by Berg was chosen to fulfil the link between contemporary and traditional design. Outside, the front elevation boasted a pillared porch with a balcony over, and wooden shutters at all the windows. The interior was more modern and included a hatch between the kitchen and dining area, which could also be used as a breakfast bar. In 1957, 3,500 would have bought this three-bedroom dream house.

Many interesting statistics resulted from the questionnaire: the majority of listeners preferred electricity for heating water, although 47% preferred to cook with gas against 44% for electricity (only 8% voted for solid fuel and 1% for oil). As far as decoration, most listeners wanted a “reasonably modern” look with the predominant colour choice of grey, with cream a close second. Wallpaper was preferred rather than distemper, emulsion or a plastic finish with one wall in the sitting room looking quite different to the other three. As far as texture was concerned it had been hard to make a clear choice between velvet and brocade for the curtain material. Some listeners wanted curtains that would tone in with the carpet whereas others wanted to introduce a different colour. Nearly everyone chose a fireside chair and a sofa instead of a three-piece suite. Everyone wanted an open fire!

As some choices were not clear-cut Jeanne Heal was left with the agonising “final” decision when it came to actually furnishing the Woman’s Hour “Castle in the Air”. As grey and cream were as good as equal for the colour scheme for the sitting and dining room, Ms. Heal chose a wallpaper that was predominately grey with a pattern of creamy white leaves with a dark green and black fitted carpet (green was the third choice). The velvet curtains were a deep, rich red with the fireside furniture covered in a grey and light green material. To add a final touch of luxury, a dark green tiled fireplace had been designed.

The majority of listeners wanted to get away from a “homely” kitchen preferring a more “streamlined” version. Fitted cupboards, a stainless steal sink and a gas cooker with an eye level grill were teamed with washable cream walls and red gingham curtains to create a balance between the two. Upstairs the main bedroom boasted grey and white striped walls with a light floral material for the bedcover and curtains. Contemporary furniture was made up of a triple-mirrored kidney-shaped dressing table, fireside chairs and pictures on the wall (instead of ornaments).

The nursery had washable pastel paint and additional decorations of fairies and animals. A fitted carpet with an all-over pattern would prevent any “spills” and the electric fire was fitted with a guard. For a girl, the teenager’s room would look feminine in comparison to a boy’s that would reflect his hobbies. For the actual Exhibition house Jeanne Heal compromised and chose a red and blue colour scheme and furnished the room with a divan bed, a record player and bookshelves. When it came to the bathroom Ms. Heal admitted that she was surprised by the listeners’ choice of a “clean and shiny” look over an “exotic” one considering the house was a “dream” house and need not be practical! Not only was Jeanne Heal shocked by the choice of colour being pink but also that 85% had voted for a shower in addition to a bath “considering we are all supposed to be old-fashioned minded”. However, this choice was put down to the fact that the questionnaire was somewhat ambiguous as question thirteen asked if the bath and basin should be coloured; question nineteen asked: Shower? Yes or No.

A letter written by an original listener and one of four invited participant reads:

“The programme “Castle in the Air” took place on Monday afternoons. It was extremely popular and a great many listeners returned questionnaires with their choices of how they would like the house to be furnished (20,000 questionnaires were received during the first week). Some time after the end of the series I received a letter inviting me of be one of four listeners to go to Broadcasting House to talk about the questionnaires and to visit the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition to see the furnished house and to take part in a live radio Woman’s Hour programme.

"On the day in question I travelled to London by train and at Broadcasting House we met Jeanne Heal and the other three listeners. We sat at a round table at the end of a large room, with coffee and sandwiches, and we were told broadly what had been done and what the procedure would be for the afternoon. I do not remember if we saw any colour photographs of the house. From the plans the youngest member of our group was really enthusiastic and especially liked the idea of a washbasin in the bedroom. After a general discussion we travelled by taxi to the Exhibition. On the way we were told that how Jeanne Heal had made her [final] decision as to which choices to use and was not open for discussion – it could not have been very easy.

"When we arrived at the Exhibition there was a large attendance and as we approached the House there was a long queue of people waiting to be allowed in to view. I distinctly remember the looks and mutterings as we appeared to be queue jumping! They were assured that there would not be a long delay for them. We made a fairly quick walk round the house and this is where my memory lets me down – I just cannot picture any real details. I think there was a grey bedroom wall, which I did not like but otherwise, for me, it was quite nice but not special. The kitchen was a good size and usefully fitted out but the entrance hall could have had a more welcoming appearance.

"After the broadcast we moved to another part of the Exhibition where Jeanne Heal talked with several gentlemen – obviously Daily Mail or T.V. representatives – and then the young listener and the slightly older woman were called over and interviewed with a view to taking part in a later T.V. programme. That programme came over very well; their enthusiasm made them the obvious choice and the difference in their ages made a further point." Mrs. Yvonne Wenham, 12.7.02

The Woman’s Hour House, “Castle in the Air” was a great success not only for the Ideal Home Exhibition but also for the popularity of Woman’s Hour. As well as avid listeners, a total of 1,329,000 tickets were sold in 1957; out of 62% of women visitors, 67% of them were housewives and 31% were under 35 years old.

Mrs. Sam Pease, 6.2.06

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