The 1900 House - Film Only Review
Running time: 9 episodes; one at 50 minutes, 8 at 25 minutes
"I thought it was just going to be me indulging in my nice little time travel experiment. But it wasn't like that at all, was it?" - Joyce Bowler, Episode 9
In 2000, Channel 4 screened a revolutionary new programme called The 1990 House. A simple idea in principle, the show aimed to mark the closing of the 20th century by showing just how much life had changed for ordinary families since the century began. Nothing revolutionary in that you might think, but with reality TV yet to saturate the viewing schedules, this was a project that would seek to show the changes in ordinary life over one hundred years by having a modern family live the life of equivalent people in 1900 for three months.
As much a social history project as a bid for ratings, The 1900 House was a huge success and set the scene for a whole slew of later living history type programmes (The 1940s House, Edwardian Country House, Pioneer House, Regency House Party, Turn Back Time, etc), but it stands out for one main reason - the emphasis on showing you the historical background and creation of the "time capsule" the family would live in, something that became notably absent in later programmes, which seemed to prefer to dwell on the difficulties of and conflicts between those involved instead. This "behind the scenes" element makes the programme especially interesting for me. As well as being interested in history, I once spent a summer working as a costumed interpreter at Beamish, the North of England Living History Museum, and therefore spent most of each working day ostensibly living in 1913 (albeit without a corset, thanks to health and safety regulations). I therefore have some idea about the restrictions of the clothing, the gloominess of rooms lit by gas lamps and sheer physical effort involved in cleaning and keeping the range going all day, and was curious to see what it would be like to exist in that world all day for a full 12 weeks.
**The Time Machine**
For me, the first episode was probably the most interesting of the whole series. At 50 minutes running time, it was twice the length of the subsequent eight episodes, and showed in loving detail how the producers had selected a middle class house of the period and set about retro-fitting it to the standard of a 1900 lower middle class family. The house (50 Elliscombe Road in Greenwich) was the victim of a particularly shoddy flat conversion at some point in the 1970s, but as the specialists worked their way through the building, they found that the cowboy builders had actually done them a favour by boarding up original features such as fireplaces rather than going for the more expensive option of ripping them out altogether. They even discovered some original Victorian wallpaper in one of the upstairs cupboards (complete with arsenic content) and some hundred year old gas piping in the cellar that proved to sound enough to use to install gas lights with, after a bit of cleaning. There were many safely hazards to consider in this work, which was closely inspected by the local council - not just the arsenic paper, but also the possibility of the hot water reservoir behind the range exploding, scalds from the copper on wash day, trip hazards from rag rugs, carbon monoxide from gas light fittings, and the need to carry candles to the rooms without the benefit of gas lights - that horrified health inspectors nearly shut down the experiment before it got going. It is really no wonder that one in four children of their period didn't survive to reach adulthood.
With the building stripped of modern additions, period items to stock the house with began to be sourced from across the country, including a temperamental range, which provide to be the hardest thing for the producers to track down - the sort of poky little thing such a family would have used is just not the sort of item that tends to be kept by antique dealers, unfortunately. The house was likewise given period provisions, which the time travellers would need to keep stocked up using only their weekly budget and ignoring anything that would not have been available in 1900.
The finished product was incredible. Most of us will have been in the large Victorian terraced houses with their bay windows, and to see one transformed into a living, working 1900 property again was amazing. To our eyes the rooms seems dark and cluttered, but the Victorians did love their ornaments, especially in the front parlour. Everything was done perfectly, even giving the family the benefit of a few of the most modern conveniences of the time - a plumbed-in bath with hot water tap (heated by the range, although only able to produce a couple of inches of hot water at a time) and a budget that allowed for period treats such as a trip to the music hall and a Box Brownie camera. The family that was selected to move in were the Bowlers, chosen from hundreds of hopeful applicants - Paul, a Royal Marine, his wife Joyce, a school inspector and their four children, Catherine (16), twins Ruth and Hillary (11) and Joe (9). They all looked so cheery and hopeful when they went for their pre-move training in period domestic skills, but you begin to see the reality of what they have volunteered for sink in as they try to master the art of guessing how hot the range oven is and how to do their laundry without injury.
**Back in Time**
The Bowler family were clearly bright and well educated, and they stated in their application that they all loved history and visited museums regularly. This is something I could identify with, yet the first thing that struck me was how shocked they seemed by how different it all was in 1900 (especially odd given they are a military family, used to moving, settling into new places and adapting to things quickly). Even before I worked at Beamish I was well aware that the clothes of a hundred years ago would be heavy and confining, that any sort of cleaning would be difficult and that all tasks from making a cup of tea upwards would be rendered much harder by the sort of technology that existed at the time. The house may look pretty when you are visiting it, but when you are struggling to work your range sufficiently well to get enough hot water to wash with, when you cannot clean your outer garments at all (they would have washed undergarments and linens only, and simply brushed down trousers, skirts and outer clothes), when dusting becomes a daily grind from all the coal fire dust, and you are finding it very difficult to cook properly, then things soon get immensely frustrating. It only took until episode two for the tears and arguments to start, and episode three saw the first import of illicit goods (shampoo) into the house. It did make me wonder why a family who claimed to know so much about history would find this quite such a culture shock, and having Joyce complain so much when it was her idea in the first place did get a bit exasperating, making episodes 2 and 3 less satisfying to watch. Once things had got a bit more settled, however, they began to get more interesting for the viewer again.
As with other historical docu-soaps, this was largely an exercise in history by themed script, with each episode covering specific themes such as cleanliness, women's liberation, entertainment and hiring a maid to help with all the work such a house generates. There was boredom amongst those used to modern distractions, but the isolation of the family was in many ways artificial. For a real Victorian family, there would have been social calls to friends, family and neighbours, church to occupy Sundays and activities such as knitting, embroidery and darning to fill the long empty hours each day. With the husband out at work and the children at school all day, there was a distinct emphasis on Joyce and her experience of the house, so we got a lot of social and domestic history from the women's perspective. The other members of the family were often a bit marginalised I thought, and it would have been nice to hear more of the children's experiences in particular, otherwise what was the point in having them there? Still, at least the historical consultants managed to keep away from the schoolroom reconstruction that plagues virtually every Victorian museum display I have ever seen!
Despite the arguments, rants to diary camera (yes, this is where that all began) and impassioned pleas to camera crews to be allowed to leave the house early, the Bowler family in the end made a good go of it and helped create a very accessible introduction to late Victorian social history for the viewer. Unlike more recent programmes, when the historical consultant came to visit it was to check how the family were getting on rather than to set them fiendish challenges as they would doubtless have done if the programme was made now. The Bowlers grew to love their house and the chickens they kept in the back yard, even going so far as to cry when the three months was up and it was time to leave and reflect on what had happened. Paul's biggest hurdle had been to learn to shave with a cut-throat razor without, well, cutting his throat, but at the end actually asked to keep it as a memento of his time in the 1900 House, a nice sign of how they has grown and developed over their time as a Victorian family.
I really enjoyed watching The 1900 House, both on its original airing on TV, and again recently. Just one question remained with me when the final credits, rolled, however - what, if anything happened to that house after the programme ended? A recent bit of googling has revealed that Channel 4 sold it on for rather more than they paid for it in 2002 (£300,000, adding three zeroes to its original Victorian price of £300) after having it re-modernised again. With such a lucrative transaction and the show selling in several other countries, it is perhaps no wonder we got so many imitations following The 1900 House. Of all such shows, though, this one remains to me the original and best.
**Watching the 1900 House**
The 1900 House in available on DVD (RRP £19.99, currently £9.99 on Amazon) or freely through 4OD (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-1900-house/4od#2922736) at the time of writing.