Friday, February 4, 2011

Living History as Reality TV

For the past decade or so there has been  a new TV genre known as "historical reality television", where ordinary people are dressed up in period clothing and tossed into a historic setting to see if they can survive the "olden days".  As far as I am aware, it began with the BBC production of "1900 House" back in 1999.  It also aired on PBS here in the U.S. where I watched with rapt attention as the Bowler family tried to survive in middle-class 1900 London.  As soon as it became available on video in my local library I checked it out, and often.

Soon other eras were explored in historical reality television.  I haven't personally seen them all as some aren't available in the United States, and as they aren't all filmed by the same production company I may be totally unaware of their existence.  Regardless, here is my running list, I have seen most but will denote those I have not with a *.

1900 House: 1900, London. (1999)
1940's House: WWII, London. (2001)
Manor House (aka The Edwardian Country House): 1905-1914, Scotland. (2002)
Regency House Party: Regency era, England. (2004) (Half historical reality show, half actual dating reality show.)
Coal House: 1927, Wales. (2007) *
Coal House at War: 1944, Wales. (2008) *
Outback House: 1861, Australia. (2005)
The Colony: 1795-1815, Australia. (2005)*
Frontier House: 1883, Montana. (2002)
Colonial House: 1628, Plymouth Colony. (2004)
Texas Ranch House: 1867, Texas. (2006)

There are more, but I can't find much info on them as they are foreign.  Up to this point the shows all have something in common: the participants could not be reenactors nor professional living historians as not to have a "leg up" on any abilities required to live in the past.  (As both a Civil War reenactor and a professional living historian I must say that despite my background and skill set, I still don't know that I could survive [with my sanity] being cast in one of these shows, let alone living the real thing.)  Most of them have a filming duration of just a few months and it seems that for a lot of the participants, a few months was plenty.

After Texas Ranch House things seemed to be rather quiet on the historical reality television front.  Sure, I would rent and re-rent all the "House" DVDs from the library from time to time, but it frustrated me that no one was producing any new documentaries depicting more time periods.  What about a show set during the Civil War?  Separate the men and have them off living as soldiers would (minus the actual dying in battle/from disease etc. of course) and have the women back at home trying to run the farm and household, waiting to hear if their soldier-husband/father/son/etc. is even alive or not?  I realize I'm being very broad and cliched here, but hey, no one is paying me to actually produce this thing...  Or, set one in the later Colonial period, just prior to the Revolutionary War.  World War One, anyone?  "Biblical" times?  There is a plethora of opportunities for good TV here. Actually, one of the foreign versions (I believe it was from New Zealand) was set in the Stone Ages.  Now that would be pretty neat to see someone from 2011 try and survive.

Finally, this past December a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video that caught my eye.  It was titled "Victorian Farm", and lo-and-behold it was a new (January of 2009) "House" documentary!  This one is set in rural England circa 1870's/1880's (I believe).  I began watching it on my iPhone in between scenes during The Museum's Christmas program.  I made it up to about part 6 and loved it.  There were some really great tidbits in there about laundry, cooking and farming that I really wish I could go back and take notes on, but alas, it seems it has been taken down due to copyright infringement.  I'm pretty sure it's not available in the U.S., which is rather disappointing considering I never got to at least finish watching it on YouTube. 

A key difference I noticed with Victorian Farm was that instead of having your "Average Joe" family donning historical costumes (and as with many of the other "House" documentaries, promptly stripping most of them right back off again, citing discomfort), is that the participants in Victorian Farm actually are historic professionals in one way or another.  The woman, (Ruth) is a domestic historian, and the two men (Alex and Peter) are both archaeologists.  Although one could say they have that previously mentioned "leg up" on things, they still have to put in the work and learn as they go.  Another interesting change was that instead of having the project span only a few months, this time they stayed an entire year.  I liked this concept, since at the end they would actually get to see their farming results instead of speculating if they would have survived or not as done in other shows such as Frontier House.

While looking up information on Victorian Farm just now, I found that there are even more historical reality shows I was unaware of!  One being Victorian Pharmacy, again set in what they describe as mid-19th Century England. They start off portraying  1837 and progress forward to the end of the Victorian era. Ruth, from Victorian Farm, also appears in this version.  And- it's on YouTube!  I'm embedding the first part below, watch it while you can! 

The other documentaries are called Edwardian Farm (guess what that's about?), Tales From the Green Valley (1620's Wales), The Victorian Kitchen Garden, The Victorian Flower Garden, The Victorian Kitchen, and the Wartime Kitchen Garden.  Whew! Again, these are only available in the UK unless you get lucky and find them online.  It seems like I will have to put in some serious YouTube time!

If there are any more of this type of historical reality show that you are aware of but I haven't mentioned, please tell me!  I've been dying for something new since 2006 and am excited to see what else is out there!


  1. My husband Ian and I discovered Victorian Farm on our own and we just devoured it! We just finished Edwardian Farm yesterday and I saw Victorian Pharmacy is uploaded on youtube, so I'm watching that next. It goes to show that 3rd person interpretation is fantastic!

    This seems to link to the full series on YouTube :)
    (I'm addicted as well -- I really like that these people know more about the history and the reality of what they are doing)

  3. I'm addicted to these; if you have (or can hack) a multiregion DVD player, many are available through Amazon UK.

    One you left off your list, that unfortunately isn't available on DVD anywhere:

    Snowdonia 1890 (Wales, 1890). Production company: Boomerang/Fflic

  4. Thank you so much for compiling a list of these!