Domesticating the Airwaves. By Maggie Andrews. Continuum. 2012. 267pp. £19.99.


The final chapter of Domesticating the Airwaves is entitled ‘Still Contesting and Idealizing Domesticity’, and this heading nicely reflects the central argument of the book. In moving across over ninety years of broadcasting and weaving together the analysis of a range of broadcast texts with social/cultural histories of domesticity, Andrews provides a compelling narrative of how British broadcasting has functioned to ‘construct a domestic ideal, which in itself is both contested and unattainable’ (p. 244). Domesticating the Airwaves provides an original, fascinating and convincing insight into how the relationship between broadcasting and domesticity – and thus by extension, femininity – has been historically contradictory and contested, far more so than traditional perceptions would have us believe.

As Andrews explains, broadcasting did not merely enter the domestic sphere: radio and television have also been structured by domestic space (just as domestic regimes have been profoundly shaped by broadcast media). As a result, ‘domesticity has continually been a preoccupation of broadcasting’ (p. 242). This in itself is not a new argument. However, as Andrews points out, historians have been slow to integrate the analysis of broadcasting history and texts with that of domesticity (p. ix): whilst broadcasting historians have focused on institutional, genre or programme histories, studies of the integration of broadcast media into the home place little or no focus on programmes and genres – how domesticity shaped the nature of broadcasting itself (p. x). The interrelationship between these spheres has thus often fallen through the analytic cracks (especially, it is fair to suggest, in the British context).

The book seeks to examine the historical roots of broadcasting's negotiation of domesticity, and its domestic journeys up until the present day. The first chapter examines how radio established what would become a long-standing relationship between femininity, domesticity and broadcasting – in terms of the domestic context of its reception, and the role that this played in shaping its chief preoccupations and concerns. Chapter 2 examines BBC radio's Household Talks – broadcast from 1929 – which articulated instructional discourses on domesticity for the female listener via a range of ‘experts’ or ‘domestic goddesses’. But despite historical perceptions of the BBC's apparently ideologically conservative programme culture, Andrews places emphasis on the ‘plurality of contradictory discourses on domesticity broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s’ (p. 29) – a context which meant that radio operated as a site of ‘contestation over domesticity rather than a site of governance’ (p. 33). Andrews argues that the concept of the lifestyle celebrity, so prevalent in television today, actually finds its roots in the relationship between radio and the domestic sphere in the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter 3 adds historical weight and texture to this argument by focusing on the fascinating (and seemingly largely unknown) histories of two early lifestyle celebrities: the restaurateur Marcel Boulestin and the gardener Mr Middleton. Chapter 4 examines how radio addressed the disrupted practices of domesticity during the Second World War, given that ‘the domestic home was not as it had been before the war; it was fractured and threatened; its make-up and occupants changed’ (p. 87), whilst Chapter 5 explores the rise of a post-war consumer culture, and a broadcasting context which saw television take over as the primary mass medium, and the advent of commercial television (1955). Most fascinating here is the discussion of the post-war rise of radio's Woman's Hour, and the highly excessive (and thus performative) domesticity of television cook Fanny Craddock. Chapter 6 examines the extent to which television's range of domestic ‘realities’ broadened in the 1960s and 1970s – with a focus on Coronation Street, Cathy Come Home (1966) and the documentary serial The Family (1974). Although there is less new information here (as there is significant existing scholarship on all of these texts), the programmes take on new emphases when placed within Andrews's broader historical narrative. Chapter 7 explores how, in the 1960s and 1970s, domestic ‘concerns, issues and discourses increasingly became intertwined with news and political programming’ (p. xiv), and broadcasting culture began to address a greater range of domestic relationships and formations (p. 185). Finally, Chapter 8, mentioned at the start of this review, surveys the plurality of domesticities portrayed across Reality TV, talk shows, soap opera and makeover shows, as well as the hugely popular historical drama Lark Rise to Candleford. Across this plethora of texts, the book outlines how domesticity remains varied and contested, idealized and striven for, as well as subject to judgement and ethical debates (in this regard, I would especially recommend the fascinating discussion of Come Dine with Me (pp. 234–41)).

This is a deeply impressive scope. But it is necessary to say a further word about methodological approach here. Although the attempt to synthesize the analysis of broadcast texts with analysis of the discursive construction of the domestic sphere is part of the book's innovation, all methods have their limitations. Whilst Andrews acknowledges that there is a strong emphasis on particular radio/TV case studies, and that the book is thus ‘highly selective’ (p. xii), there is little genuine reflection on how choices were made (and the implications of these choices). There is something quite exhilarating, and certainly methodologically innovative, about being taken on domestic journeys which, all in one chapter, traverse the discussion programme Houseparty (1968–81), Brookside, The Jeremy Kyle Show, Reality TV (pp. 194–7), the Sarah Kennedy radio show, Panorama, Newsnight and remembrance television. But the footprints of such a potentially ‘random’ route through time perhaps need more robust reflection than is offered here. Furthermore, although case studies can provide a rich and fascinating insight into historical shifts in ways which overview narratives cannot, they run the risk of unrepresentativeness. Thus, it seems potentially problematic to argue, on limited evidence, that programmes in the late 1960s and the 1970s had ‘both to articulate women's continuing domestic responsibilities and their questioning of this domestic role’ (p. 182). This is especially so given that so many of the broadcast texts from the British past no longer survive (and as television aimed at women has historically been deemed to be everyday and ‘trivial’, it has been especially vulnerable to disposal).

But these are ultimately minor gripes in the context of what is a very significant, highly readable and original book. In seeking to synthesize broadcast analysis with the cultural analysis of domesticities, Domesticating the Airwaves represents an important contribution to feminist media history, feminist cultural history, broadcasting history and cultural history.