Formats Unpacked: A House Through Time

How a mash-up format makes you feel less guilty about guilty pleasures

Hi All,

We’ve just made it over the 500 subscriber mark. Not bad for a newsletter less than a couple of months old. There are clearly lots of us format obsessives out there. Thank you all for subscribing. Producing this has been an absolute joy - I hope you get as much out of it as I do.

This week’s unpacking comes from the brilliant documentary producer Lynsey Martenstyn who is currently working with us on a pilot for Discovery Channel. Lynsey has also worked on a range of award-winning formats, from BBC3's popular short-form series 'Things Not to Say' to BAFTA nominated current affairs documentary 'Growing Up Poor: Britain's Breadline Kids'. Over to Lynsey…

What’s it called:

What’s the format:

David Olusoga tells the story of those who lived in one house, from the time it was built until now. It’s Who Do You Think You Are but for houses. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Historical scandal, expensive property and animated maps. This series captures everything I never realised I wanted in a series. 

Essentially, an area’s social history is told through the eyes of one, seemingly unassuming house, and its inhabitants. Of the hundreds of people who’ve lived at one address, notable people are selected and their lives highlighted; painting a broad history from the house’s birth up until present day. Social history, let’s be honest, in the right narrative hands, is fundamentally a soap opera with real people. Prostitution, gossip, double lives, seances… boy, do the the walls of these houses have stories to tell!

A House Through Time is a mashup of two of my guilty favourite TV genres: history and property. The series allows you to oogle around a lovely old house, whilst learning, making you feel more cultured and less guilty about willingly wanting to spend your free time staring longingly at someone else’s cornices (but what lovely cornices they are).

The series is presented in a gentle and controlled manner by David Olusoga, who masterfully walks the fine line between historian and best estate agent to ever exist. 

I’m a big fan of property and interior shows. I grew up on a solid diet of MTV’s Cribs and BBC’s Changing Rooms, so am naturally inclined towards any programme that allows you to snoop into someone else’s house. Bonus points for throwing in a satisfying amount of jib shots of sash windows. 

Despite each series featuring a really gorgeous house (did I mention this show features nice houses?), the focus of the series is on the history of its inhabitants. A fantastic research team find the most intriguing aspects of select inhabitant’s lives: the sea captain who was twice captured by pirates and somehow made his way back home (in the 1700s), the runaway slave who escapes with just his wig, the abandoned child who died in a pauper’s grave, the bright young teacher who ends up in an insane asylum. 

The show is an anthology of human lives, captured by diary entries, censuses, paintings and newspaper clippings. Brought to life by a fantastic use of animated archive. The series focuses on people who are forgotten and would have been forgotten in their time - servants, housewives, unwanted babies. As well as those who were esteemed and respected men of their day, but today, just as forgotten as those who served them. This provides an overarching humbling tone to the series, which I find profoundly resonant. 

The magic lay in the narrative structure and story development. The house ties all the stories together, the houses selected for each of the three series are old and are located in the city centres of port cities. These unifying aspects allow them to have an eclectic range of owners and inhabitants, which naturally provides diversity in the human stories who lived there. Each episode focuses on those who lived long and prosperous lives, as well as those who lived for a few years and everything between; meaning the audience are served a multifaceted assortment of lives, making it an incredibly binge-worthy series. 

This is a series that works in the UK and Europe, due to our old cities, packed to the gills with history. Here in the UK, our history is something we take for granted. I’m reminded of this whenever I travel outside of Europe, where houses older than a century are seen as special than commonplace. The stories that the houses unlock remind us that here, we are never more than a few steps away from history. We meander through it everyday without a second thought, perhaps we should stop and appreciate it more.

Favourite Episode:

Each series focuses on one house in a different place, making it difficult to choose a specific episode as you get emotionally attached to the house (well, I do). My favourite series is the first, which focuses on 62 Falkner Street, in Liverpool, although I’m incredibly fond of all three series. The first nudges ahead of the others for me as it’s simply a fantastic first series - it has a strong format, tone and look. Additionally, Liverpool is a deeply captivating place, historically. A fact that can be forgotten, due to its famous football and musical reputation. It’s history is so rich that you can hear it in the accent, which is audibly influenced by Irish immigration. Liverpool is also home to some of the oldest black communities in Europe and the first library in Britain.

Similar formats:

Thanks for the unpacking Lynsey.

This was a very popular choice in the Storythings office when Lynsey mentioned it at team meeting this morning. It appears David Olusoga can do no wrong. Everyone in the team who has watched it binged it in a single session. Always a good sign of a brilliant format.

Thanks again for reading. If you have a favourite format you’d like to unpack do get in touch.

More unpacking next week.


Formats unpacked is a weekly newsletter from Storythings in which industry experts unpack one of their favourite formats. If you’ve enjoyed reading this please subscribe, like, or share. Or just say hello.

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