Living History in the Manor House

Did anyone else watch Manor House when it was on PBS a few weeks ago? This was great TV! Another in the series of “living history” projects (1900 House and Frontier House) this was by far the best of the lot. A modern-day family and staff of volunteers agreed to live for three months as if in the Edwardian era. Set in a beautifully restored HUGE turn-of-the-century manor in the English countryside, participants shed their modern dress and conveniences to see how it would be to live as master and servants in the era leading up to WWII, all-the-while with cameras rolling, recording the tasks and tensions that come with the job.

As in the previous programs, there was an element of learning how to do certain tasks in a world without appliances, but Manor House was much more about the interpersonal dynamics between and within the upstairs and the downstairs. The Edwardian era was a period of very strict codes of behavior and it was very interesting to see how each of the participants adjusted to the do’s and don’ts.

The Have’s are a wealthy middle-class family, the Olliff-Coopers. (You know they’re pretentious right off the bat, since they’ve got one of those snooty hyphenated names.) Assuming the title of Lord and Lady that comes with their new digs, the family falls right into their roles, donning the fancy garb and down-their-nose attitude with ease.

Below stairs, the house staff includes parlor maids, footmen, a French chef, a housekeeper and, overseeing them all with a steely gaze, the butler Mr. Edgar. This was a guy who was taking his job and the experiment seriously and he was great. An architect by trade, Edgar’s grandfather had been “in service” during the period and he wanted to experience what it had been like, to gain a better understanding of who his grandfather was.

I found the entire program fascinating. Like The Real World with purpose, it was interesting in so many ways: How the older participants acting as servants had a pretty good understanding of just how much hard work would be involved, and many of the young people, especially the scullery maids, had no clue how difficult it would be, and how the young staff claimed beforehand that they wanted to test their mettle in this experiment only to quickly lapse into pissing and moaning; how many of the participants were doing it because they had grandparents who’d been in service, and how moved they were by the experience; how Mr. Edgar tries any number of management techniques to motivate his staff, keep them in line and avoid revolt; how easily the businessman and his doctor-wife took to their roles and how much they dreaded having to give it all up in the end.

The pace of the program is brisk with just the right amount of historical facts thrown in to make it educational as well as entertaining. The production is first-rate and at times the direction is clever, especially in the way the participants are transitioned back into the “real” world. Like most things on PBS, if you missed it, they’re bound to show it again (and again) and it’s due out on DVD. Be sure to check out the program’s great interactive website (see the link above) for lots of extras.

One thought on “Living History in the Manor House

  1. You are the second person who has recommened this show. I wish I had seen it. As you said PBS will show it again.

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