House This House That

I watched three of the House shows (1900 House, 1940s House and Manor House) and part of the fourth (Colonial House). Here are my thoughts:

The best is Manor House—by a long chalk. In fact, Manor House, narrated by Derek Jacobi, is so good it almost belongs in its own category. Of the remaining three, 1940s House is the next best. But Manor House puts them all to shame. (I didn't watch Frontier House and will address why in a later paragraph).

Manor House was superb for several reasons:

1. All the people involved were intelligent from the houseboy up to the lord of the manor. Unlike the sweet but woefully clueless family of 1900 House, the members of Manor House had some idea of what they were getting into. A number of the servants had grandparents who had worked in service (the butler's grandfather had been a butler) and all of the servants were hard workers and had little sympathy for those who weren't.

2. Both the butler and Sir John wanted to make the experience authentic. They wanted to feel what it would have been really like. I personally thought that Sir John was a pompous git (an intelligent pompous git), and I sniggered a bit at his "concern" for his servants (whom he barely knew and certainly didn't understand), but the end result was quite believable. I think there were probably manor house owners who got involved in the day-to-day workings of their households. But I imagine that there were those owners, like Sir John, who thought they knew what was going on but didn't really have a clue about the lives of their servants and who could never have brought themselves to destroy the system, not matter how much concern they felt.

Sir John and Lady Oliff-Cooper, you understand, liked being lord and lady of the manor. I actually admired them for that. They were articulate about the problems they saw ("We hardly communicate," Lady O said. "Eventually, my husband would take a mistress and my children would be scarred for life. My son has to make an appointment to see me." And her son, Jon T, said, "Her brain has gone to mush," meaning that his Dr. Mom only talked about clothes), but they were also quite honest about how much they were loving it. They wept the day they had to leave.

The servants didn't. On the other hand, allowing that the servants had a tough life (and I'm very grateful my ancestors were the burgeoning middle class and preferred being poor in different kinds of ways), I found the servants' lifestyle ultimately more emotionally satisfying than the uppercrust lifestyle. I wouldn't opt for it under any conditions, but the servants had, at least, family-like relationships. They didn't all get along all the time, but they were close. Even the crazy French chef, whom none of them liked at the beginning, was considered part of the group—the crazy relative you keep locked up 364 days out of the year: nuts but ours. One of the housemaids said on the last day, "I don't know how I'm going to adjust to not having people around all the time." In any case, the servants' lifestyle was preferable to the life of Lady O's single sister; thank goodness for modern civilization in regards to women.

Of the servants, I agree with my sister Ann that it was Edgar, the butler, who made the biggest difference. He was a regular CEO (without the fat pay check); he decided what Sir John and Lady O heard about matters downstairs; he disciplined the servants (he started out tough and ended up more relaxed, but he was still fairly strict); he had a great deal of investment in making the experience real, in making the manor a true Edwardian household. He, too, was able to articulate the experience. In one of the most heart-rending statements of the show, he noted that the system worked but was based on a lack of communication. Not deception per se but a lack of honesty. Any such system is doomed to fail, Edgar said, and the Edwardian world was indeed "swept away."

This desire for authenticity is notably lacking from all but 1940s House (where the imposed conditions create a de facto sense of authenticity). In all the other House shows, the people in the show are 21st century folks plunged into strange settings where they have to wear unusual clothes and make things without power tools: Survivor without the bathing suits. This is one reason I never watched Frontier House. Watch people starve? Yawn. Watch people bicker? Yawn. Watch people self-implode? Yawn. Yawn. Yawn. You can watch that on Big Brother. Why drag in the historic setting?

Colonial House reached a truly horrible standard here. In one of the few episodes I watched, one of the Freemen decided to go "exploring"—so he left the village and the 1,000 acres on which Colonial House was set and backpacked into civilization where he sat at a bar and got a free beer.

His excuse for breaking the rules: "That's what they would have done. They wanted to explore."

I was reading a book about Jamestown while I watched, and I started laughing. John Smith--who was tougher than this pauncy, self-absorbed, angsty "I just want to explore" idiot could ever hope to be--never went on "exploratory" journeys without several men and lots of guns.

And then the narrator said exactly what I was thinking without all the "pauncy, self-absorbed" stuff.

Personally, I would have kicked the guy off the show and told the rest that he'd been eaten by a bear. Or killed by a Native American. Or gotten lost and starved to death. (No one's going to rush up to you in the wilderness with a pint, moron.)

He wasn't even punished, as far as I can tell, although he had the grace at least to be ashamed that he'd gone walk-about for three days while everyone else was working.

Thing is, the entire Colonial House show was like this. The religious issue really bugged me, not because there weren't many people who disliked Puritanism at that time, but because the issue wouldn't have been "my freedom of expression" but rather "what I believe instead." Ann Hutchinson, who got excommunicated by the Puritans, got excommunicated because she had a differing interpretation of scripture, not because she wanted to stay home on Sunday and watch TV. Even atheism was a theology of sorts, a position one took in regards the universe. I'm sure there were some cheerful agnostics and a lot of people who didn't much care but went along with the status quo, but IF you started making waves, it was usually because you had some kind of alternate belief system. If you were more into tolerance, you didn't sit around and whine about the lack of tolerance, you moved into Quaker territory, and if it turned out you really weren't all that much into tolerance, you promptly moved out again. After her excommunication, Ann Hutchinson moved to Rhode Island; they kicked her out because she kept trying to get people to do things her way. So she moved to New York and got killed by Natives. There was none of this "live and let live" stuff going on.

The point is, the volunteers of Colonial House were trying to live their 21st century lifestyles rather than trying to accommodate their views to a 17th century lifetstyle. Instead of trying to realize, for themselves or for the audience, the reality of the experience, they focused instead on "getting in touch with ourselves" and "getting something out of being Puritans"—yech. A substandard English Literature class is what it turned into.

3. One of the things that helped cross the line from 21st century people having an experience to 21st people capturing the reality of the period was the reality of the work.

In 1900 House and Colonial House, there was no real reason why the volunteers had to keep working. There was no real debt they had to pay off to the company. Nobody was really going to starve (or get eaten by a bear). The 1900 House women could stop wearing corsets if they wanted. They were no real neighbors they needed to impress. The Colonial House folks could have unrealistic, New Age-type Sunday services if they wanted. There was no reality being forced upon them and therefore, no real reason to go through with the fiction.

In Manor House, however, there was an imposed reality. Unlike 1900 House, where it was simply unbelievable that the mother wouldn't have had any friends amongst her neighbors or anything to do except go bicycling, the servants in Manor House (and Lady O's sister as well as the tutor) truly were trapped. The servants eventually resorted to bargaining with Edgar for their time off, and they only got it because (1) they were able to prove that servants of their time period would have gotten it and (2) because Sir John interceded (letting them all have the same half-day off much to Edgar's consternation).

Secondly, real life duties existed in the manor. Sir John and Lady O had REAL dinner parties. They had the REAL British Poet Laureate to stay. They had a gala ball. They had a hunting party. All the guests were real, not paid actors or whatever. These were real events. And the real (and completely insane) French chef had to prepare real dinners (by the way, the insane French chef was also committed to the idea of authenticity and got truly brassed off at Sir John for wanting more modern dishes—he considered it cheating, which it was, and that Sir John wanted the best of both the 19th and 21st centuries. He got so ticked off, in fact, that he deliberately roasted and served Sir John a pig's head. The servants applauded—downstairs—Sir John had no idea how much he was loathed.)

The servants had to work. And work hard. And both Edgar and Sir John insisted that they do the work as it truly would have been done. There was one rather chilling moment where a group of visitors were asking Sir John if his servants were happy, and he said, "Oh, yes, I think my servants are satisfied. A smiling housemaid is a happy housemaid," and in the background you saw the three footmen delivering dishes under Edgar's authority. And they didn't say a word. They didn't acknowledge what they'd heard. They didn't smile or smirk. When the (seated) tutor started going on about how rough he had things, they didn't respond, although later, Edgar criticized the tutor for "embarrassing Sir John and Lady O" and the footmen made the angry point that they were the ones doing all the work.

But nobody said a word. It was amazing. They kept within their roles, despite serious provocation. They acted real. And by doing that, the audience gained a sense of reality. I understood, as I never had with 1900 House, why the working poor were so attracted to socialism. When things are that bad, an ideology that promises to even things out looks pretty good. Granted socialism wouldn't have helped anyone. It took two World Wars to destroy the caste system in England and remnants of it still exist.

Now, it isn't possible to have a truly authentic experience, but there's historical accuracy, and then, well, there's Survivor with funny clothes. If I were in charge of say, Renaissance Town, I would do what they did in Manor House and give everyone rule books. There would be flexibility, but the volunteers would be expected to keep within certain bounds. Or I would do as they did in 1940s House and impose conditions that force the volunteers into more historically accurate behavior. If you did the Plague Years, you could keep hauling people off ("Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.") without warning. This is much more disturbing than forcing people to build things with axes. I mean, come on, there are people who build things with axes in the real world. The only reason it becomes TV and "entertaining" is because the people doing it don't have a clue. And I just don't find it enjoyable to watch people not having a clue. Give me smart people with a clue and a desire for historical accuracy—that I can get behind.

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