With reality shows garnering more and more ratings, PBS, along with Channel 4 in Great Britain, produced a series of shows based on transporting people back to an earlier era. The idea was to immerse modern-day people in a particular time period and see how they fared. This was quite interesting for the most part, although flaws could be seen in most of the experiments.
In Manor House, for three months participants are brought to a manor house built in 1905 by a British business tycoon. There, they are delegated to be servants and masters of the manor. The era was one just after Queen Victoria died. With Edward now on the throne, it was an era when the rich lived lavish lives. Country manor homes were used exclusively during the hunting and fishing seasons. This is the time setting of Downton Abbey, although this was filmed well before that series.
It was also a time of distinctive social castes, with the rich behaving in a certain way and expecting complete submission by those they employed. There were distinctive reactions expected from the servants, and lines that were never to be crossed. Even the servants have a caste system as the upper servants are in charge of the lesser servants and are somewhat responsible for their discipline and morality. The scullery maid is the lowest and is expected to wake the house. Likewise, the second footman has specific duties in the morning to the first footman and the butler.
None of the participants have been servants before. Mr. Edgar has been trained for three weeks as a butler and will oversee all of the other staff. The staff lives at the house, separate from the rest of their families, as was the custom of the day.
The family chosen to live this ostensibly lavish lifestyle are a modern-day businessman, his physician wife, their two sons, and the wife’s sister. “Sir John” and “Lady Olliff-Cooper” are already considered to be among the more privileged in modern British society when they are dumped into a world of unbelievable opulence. However, they soon learn that there are certain expectations placed upon them due to their social status. Not all of these expectations leave them particularly comfortable. This is especially true for Lady Ollif-Cooper and clothing.
There is narration to augment what is happening which is quite interesting and informative. It gives a great historical perspective on what was happening and why. The entire setting is authentic, down to the food the people eat, the clothes they wear, and how they behave at various times of the day. The servants have time to prepare before the family comes to learn their positions and find a sort of rhythm to the very hard work that needs to be done every single day.
The first casualty is the scullery maid, Lucy, who ends up lasting just two days. She complains about being used to her mother doing her cooking and cleaning and going out at night. She’s afraid of the dark and misses her boyfriend. She leaves without saying “Goodbye” to anyone and just disappears. Her work then falls on the other servants until a replacement is brought in. That replacement lasts a bit longer than Lucy, but Kelly eventually ends up leaving as well.
The first part mainly deals with the roles and place each servant has in the house, as well as what is expected of both servant and master for grooming and behavior. It’s in the second episode that things start getting really interesting as there is infighting between the servants as well as resentment building over what is required of them.
One of the kitchen maids actually says she would rather be a street walker than a maid like this if this was how they lived and worked back then. When some of the staff does cut loose for one evening, they are punished by not being allowed to invite their family to an elaborate garden party planned for the following Saturday.
A visitor to help them have some perspective is a lady who actually did work in the house as a maid at one time. Her stories involve physical, mental, and sexual abuse of the servants by those who employed them. The servants had no recourse since even if they wanted to leave their place of employment they would need a reference to obtain another job.
It’s interesting to see how the perspectives on what is happening differ. Sir John believes he is a benevolent employer, while his servants have a much different perspective. It’s hard to believe that being on the top of the heap can be stressful, but Lady Olliff-Cooper’s sister does leave the project for a time due to the strain. Only the youngest son, Guy, seems to enjoy many of the aspects of the project as he can spend time in the downstairs world of the servants and they can lavish him with the attention social mores dictate that his parents cannot.
This show is fascinating on two levels. Watching it makes it really hard to complain about our modern-day jobs where the idea of having it rough is having to stand on your feet for eight hours. At the same time, watching people with modern-day values try to behave in a way that is completely alien to them is fun as well. The idea of not being able to see your family, not being allowed to develop relationships, and having to defer to an employer in a manner that is just about one step up from slavery really chafes against the servants. Most of the participants try their hardest with the situation, but their feelings often simmer over.
I found it fascinating to see what went on behind the scenes. The differing perspectives on what this world is like are interesting. Where it could bog down and become tedious, the squabbles, resentments, and infighting keep it interesting.
Another thing I took away from this is that although we haven’t quite descended that far, with the gap between the rich and poor growing in this country, it would seem we are headed right back in the same direction as to how things were during this time. Only this time, it would seem the rich have the lesser of us pigeonholed in jobs doing the dirty work they don’t want to do, but not directly under their employment. Working in the hospitality industry in a resort town gives one an interesting perspective on the “haves” versus the “have-nots”.
Like other PBS/Channel 4 offerings in this series, Manor House has become a favorite of mine. This is an example of what reality television could be, providing education, enlightenment, and entertainment. Personally, I couldn’t live in a world where I couldn’t escape to the nearest Taco Bell when I was in need of comfort food. If you’re like me, you’ll end up with a different perspective on the world we live in.
• Edwardian House Diaries – these were interesting as the project took place during 9/11
Categories: Television Reviews