If the word Victorian evokes images of gingerbread-trimmed mansions, PBS's new Victorian Slum House could be an eye-opener.
The place is a dump.
That's the point of public television's latest venture into "reality" television, a British import in which a group of people attempt to live as some of their ancestors did. In the re-created tenement of London's East End, they're asked to eke out an existence in the approximation of an era when a single accident or financial misstep could land people in the workhouse, or, worse, leave them to starve in the streets.
Think Survivor-meets-Who Do You Think You Are? and add a layer or two of soot, and you pretty much have it. Though, as host Michael Mosley notes, the air of east London would have been far more polluted 150 years ago. So maybe there's not enough soot?
From the producers of 1900 House and 1940s House, Victorian Slum House -- known as Victorian Slum in its BBC Two run last fall -- doesn't just offer a view of British life that's a long way from the grandeur of Downton Abbey. It's also a fast-forward history experience, taking its participants through five turbulent decades over five weeks, beginning Tuesday with the 1860s.
The show's setting is actually Stratford, not far from the site of the 2012 Olympics and London's rapidly gentrifying East End. Tuesday's episode introduces us to several families whose ancestry or 21st-century circumstances are key to placing them in the stratified world of the 19th-century poor.
And so the Potter/Oldfield family, some of whom are descended from unskilled workers, find themselves living together in a single room, and the more prosperous Howarths, who are from a long line of tailors, are allotted two filthy rooms, as well as a stove and tin bath, for about twice the rent. In one of the show's more anachronistic moments, they find eager customers for their retro rag-trade creations among the 21st-century hipsters they meet at market.
The Birds, who run the shop that supplies those with no cooking facilities with their daily bread and other needs, also live a little higher on the hog, but with the ever-present worry that their customers won't be able to pay their debts by the time the Birds' rent is due.
Andy Gardiner, a professional golfer whose right leg was amputated and who volunteered for the show to learn more about how Victorians treated the disabled, trades in his prosthetic leg for a fiberglass compromise between a historically accurate wooden leg and his own high-tech version. He's the rent collector and the manager of the "doss house," where those down even further on their luck than tenement dwellers might end up. One doss-house innovation that makes the tenement look luxurious: the "hangover bench," on which, for a pittance, one could sleep sitting up, kept from falling to the floor by a rope across the chest.
No one's facing as much hardship as Shazeda Haque, a single mother of two who has only her children to help her in an economy in which even two adult wage earners often weren't enough.
Selfishness in the face of scarcity is nothing new in reality TV, but with no one getting voted out of the tenement (assuming the rent's paid on time), the ways people justify their less-generous behavior is often to point to their children's potentially empty stomachs.
Children are the true standouts of the three episodes I've seen of Victorian Slum House. Perhaps it's just that slumming represents a few weeks' respite from their ordinary, over-organized lives. But their enthusiasm for 19th-century child labor, whether it's selling watercress in the streets, sewing, or spending countless hours making artificial flowers, is contagious. They complain less than the adults -- or have been edited more charitably -- and seem to appreciate that their contributions are indispensable.
And if they're missing their smartphones, they're at least smart enough not to say so.