Rather like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here crossed with Tony Robinsons’ The Worst Jobs in History, this four-episode living history series took six celebrities back to the 1840s. It wasn’t chaise longues and afternoon tea for them, no – they were to experience the harsh lives of the early Victorian working class.
Starting with a dust yard (at the Black Country Living Museum, which you sometimes see in the background in Peaky Blinders) and collecting ‘pure’ and night soil (poo, in other words), it was grim and grimy all the way. The second episode saw them at a coaching inn, where the women did domestic chores while the men worked as ostlers and as a pot-boy. The third episode took them to the potteries, where they experienced the unfair way in which the workers were paid, which led to the positively surreal sight of former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe form a union and go on strike. And after losing their jobs at the potteries, the fourth episode saw them suffer the inhumanely punitive conditions of the workhouse.
There’s a lot to recommend this programme, and the celebrities involved, even while doing the very unVictorian act of talking to-camera, were emphatic about how real it all felt. The nasty bosses and demanding customers added to the convincing historical setting as much as the clothes and uncomfortable straw mattresses, the dirt and the lack of the sleep, the bad food and hunger. The exceptionally mean matron in the workhouse, who in real life had worked in a hospital, made me fear for the nurses she used to manage.
Curating the past was tv historian Ruth Goodman. I basically want her outfit. That bonnet was fabulous. She popped up every so often to explain the situations the celebrities had been cast into. Yes, she said, had Ann Widdecombe continued to rebel in the workhouse, she would have been thrown out and left to starve in a ditch. There is a parallel to be drawn to modern day benefits sanctions, but it’s so obvious, I shall spare you.
I did quibble a couple of times – the tasks they were given to do would have been done by people who had some experience and training in them. The constant withholding of wages and food because they didn’t do the job well enough didn’t ring true for that reason (Alistair and Colin got nagged at for not changing the horses and preparing the carriages fast enough, but they had never done it before – it got quite irritating). Although I suppose it does demonstrate the fact that Victorian workers had to be 100% on the ball, and had very little way to argue back if they felt they had been treated unfairly.
For all the hardships they experienced, it was quite affecting to see Alistair McGowan weep when he went into the pottery kiln and saw the stacks of clay ready to be fired. He said that he felt we had lost something, that we no longer make things with our own hands. I think he has a point, even though I was watching this whilst knitting a cardigan!
For those of us researching our family trees, programmes like these are brilliant, because it really does make you think about what the documents you find relating to your family are telling you. When you see that on the census, a ten-person family was living in only a couple of rooms, what does that mean? Where did they find the space to sleep? What happened at the end of the working day?