This Old House

My son had his Spring Break at the end of March, and I took the extra free time to start revisiting most of the “House” series. Remember those? A family, several familes, or maybe just a random group of people would try to live as people did in a certain time in history, and it had to be the real deal. No wearing of period costume with modern underwear. No washing of antique dishes in a dishwasher. No peeking at the Web while writing with a quill pen. No sneaking out to McDonald’s when there are beef and onion fritters waiting at home. Some took to these situations, and others didn’t.

There are two “House” programs that I’m not including here: Victorian Slum House and Coal House, because they’re harder to find in the United States. I’d love to see them someday, though, if I get the chance.

Anyway, let’s be off…

1900 House (2000)

house1900
IMDb

Ah yes, the one that started it all. A century-old two-flat at 50 Elliscombe Road in the Charlton area of London was transformed to look as it would have in the very late Victorian Era, and the Bowler family were chosen to live there for three months.

This series was the most unusual of all of the “Houses,” as the first episode was devoted to preparations–restoring the house, auditioning families, and talking about potential hazards. What was really nice was that the program showed the side of the Victorian era that’s not seen in the stiff, posed photos of the era. It was a lot of hard work, but like any other family, the Bowlers had to develop a system for getting it all done.

Some complained about how much whining the Bowlers did, but I loved the series–many of the activities the family had to do are the same ones we have schoolkids trying out at Placer County’s Living History program, and watching the Bowlers adjust their expectations and habits was interesting. In the end, they found they were better for it.

1940s House (2001)

1940shouse
Amazon

I enjoy studying the nineteen-forties, and this series is definitely one of my favorites. One of the cool things about it is that the producers chose a family, the Hymers, who came into the project with quite a bit of prior knowledge of the period, especially the grandfather, Michael. For them, it was a matter of seeing the practical side of the World War Two home front, as opposed to the academic aspect. Building an Anderson shelter, for instance, was a lot more work than it seemed to be.

The women, grandmother Lynn and her daughter Kirsty, bore the brunt of the project’s hardships. They were the ones who had to do the shopping, cook the meals, and figure out what to do when the Vim ran out. Meanwhile, Michael got the fat of the stores. “He has no real conception of the shortages,” Lynn said of her husband’s view of rationing. Meanwhile, Kirsty’s young sons learned to make their own fun out of nothing, and they came through with flying colors.

Immersion does get a little slap when one considers the entire six-year war had to be crammed into nine weeks, but it still allowed the family a healthy taste of certain parts of wartime life. Highly recommended.

Frontier House (2002)

frontierhouse
IMDb

Shot in rural Montana, Frontier House featured three families–the Clunes, the Brooks, and the Glenns. They were all assigned character scenarios which determined how much they would have to do as far as building a farm went, and it was make or break. The hardest part of the project for most of them was the amount of time these families had to spend together. Any flaws in relationships reared their heads, and families either came out stronger, like the Clunes and the Brooks, or completely went to pot, like the Glenns.

Ugh, the Glenns. Karen Glenn was often caustic, with not a lot of compassion for the Clune family in particular. She did soften over time, but even so, she and her husband, Mark ended up getting divorced later. It might be easy to blame this on the project, but the odds are good that it would have happened anyway.

Other than that, the series is delightful, as most of the participants had good senses of humor and found ways to make what would have been a beginning out on the frontier. Everyone on the project emerged on the other side changed forever.

Manor House (2002)

manorhouse
IMDb

Shot concurrently with Frontier House, Manor House was probably the most ambitious of all the “House” projects, and it’s absolutely excellent. Not only was the house one of the biggest of all the dwellings featured, but there were two social strata at work: those who ran the house, and the family they served. They had trouble keeping a scullery maid–two fled the project after only a couple of days. Even when they did get one who would stay, the staff still had a tremendous workload, and there weren’t enough workers for a house that size. In its heyday, Maderston employed over twenty people, but the series only had fifteen. Still, they found a way to deal with it.

The show also makes sound commentary on the flaws of Edwardian life, as rich people were held to a different moral standard than the working class. The rich could have affairs and no one would bat an eye, while the poor were expected to be morally upright. As time went on, a hedonistic attitude took hold and gambling became the fashion both upstairs and downstairs. There were also strict rules as to what could and couldn’t be shared, even within the classes. The butler, Mr. Edgar, lamented this: “Without truth, a society is sick.”

Regency House Party (2004)

regencyhouseparty
Amazon

Five men, five women, five chaperones, one hostess, and one ladies’ companion all come together to enjoy the pleasures of regency life and Jane Austen’s era. Theoretically, the singles were supposed to pair off and presumably get engaged, but it wasn’t quite that simple.

In the absence of any real sparks flying, the producers lined up various Georgian-era pastimes to up the potential for romance. Gothicism was especially popular at that time, and the party puts on a play with vampires and fake fire. On another night, there’s a magic lantern show, complete with special effects. Creepiest of all was when the party saw a plastination exhibit, which was apparently a thing in both the twenty-first century and the Georgian era.

One of the problems with putting modern-day people in this time period is that conversation isn’t the art form it used to be. The interactions between the participants were a wee bit boring, a mix between Georgian protocol and twenty-first century mindsets. Still, it does have some good moments, such as when James Carrington croons “MLK” under one of the ladies’ windows.

Colonial House (2004)

housecolonial
IMDb

Depressing and irritating. I checked Colonial House out of the library once, and almost couldn’t get through it. As usual, there was a lot of thought put into the project, and the rules were very straightforward; however, most of the participants all but flipped a bird at it. The Voorhees family in particular openly and willfully flaunted their rulebreaking, such as skipping church to go skinny-dipping, which sparked other colonists opting out of church as well. This would not have happened in the colonial era; missing services without a good reason was a punishable offense.

It was natural for every participant in these “House” series to have to adjust their expectations, but in Colonial House, some persisted in being so mean and disrespectful that it’s a mystery as to why they signed on in the first place. They didn’t want to learn from the experience and didn’t even try. I can’t blame them to a degree, because things did get out of hand, but I kept wishing a crewmember would walk into frame and tell people to grow up.

Texas Ranch House (2006)

housetexasranch
IMDb

This is the only American-filmed “House” series I haven’t seen, which is likely because it was so poorly received. Most viewer complaints I’ve read are either about the tyrannical Mrs. Cooke or how rude everyone was. So, if I come across it, I might watch it just to say I’ve watched all the “House” series, but I definitely won’t break my neck to track it down.


It’s a no-brainer as to why the “House” series quit being produced, at least for American audiences–the lack of enthusiasm on the part of later participants tends to cast a pall over everything. The immersion approach to history can only go so far if people aren’t committed to it; otherwise there’s no point. Still, they are an interesting snapshot from the days when reality TV was in its infancy, and as time goes on will give viewers a double hit of eras gone by.

Coming up in July:

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If anyone’s interested in contributing, please see these wonderful people:

Crystal and Michaela are also co-hosting the Third Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon, so yeah, these ladies are busy. Thanks for reading, everyone. More goodies are on the way… 

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