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1900 House, The (1999)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of 1900 House, The (1999)
Wall to Wall Television for Channel 4, tx. 22/9-11/11/1999
DirectorCaroline Ross-Pirie
Production CompanyWall To Wall Television
Executive ProducersLeanne Klein
 Alex Graham
Series ProducerSimon Shaw

Cast: Paul Bowler; Joyce Bowler; Kathryn Bowler; Ruth Bowler; Hilary Bowler; Joe Bowler

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The six-strong Bowler family play the role of a late-Victorian household.

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Developing (or echoing) a format originated some two decades earlier in Living in the Past (BBC, 1978), The 1900 House became one of the founding examples of a sub-genre of the late 1990s boom in 'reality TV', often described as 'social experiment' TV.

The programme recorded the attempts of the Bowler family - Royal Marines officer Paul, civil servant Joyce and their four children, 16 year-old Kathryn, 11 year-old twins Ruth and Hilary and 9 year-old Joe - to survive a three-month "unique human experiment": living as a Victorian family in a fully furnished Victorian house, under Victorian restrictions. This meant cooking on a coal fire, using an outside toilet, living without modern cleaning products and wearing period dress. The programme's intention was to demonstrate the impact of 20th century technology through its absence.

The 1900 House might have been a modest educational series of interest mostly to those with a historical bent. Indeed, the first episode concentrated on interviews with various historians explaining how Victorian domestic appliances were used. However, its success suggests that audiences had seen something more than a historical study of household appliances.

The half-hourly editions interspersed footage of the Bowlers' experiences with by-now familiar video diaries from the family members. This enabled the audience to build a connection with the participants as they confessed to sneaking in shampoo and struggling under their new environment. The historical programme had managed to incorporate audience-pleasing ingredients, tension, rows and breaking of the rules. The series became at least as much about the way the Bowlers coped with their privations as it was about the late-Victorian Britain it purported to recreate.

Regardless, the formula proved extremely popular. From a 'reality' genre that had, by the mid-1990s, already won huge audiences by presenting real people in their day-to-day professional lives in 'docusoaps' such as Airport (BBC, 1996) and Hotel (BBC, 1997), The 1900 House demonstrated the existence of substantial audience interest in observing real people in unreal situations.

The 1900 House won the Peabody award in 2001, and its producers, Wall to Wall Television, extended the formula to other eras, including recreations of WWII domestic conditions in The 1940s House (2001), Pre-WWI Britain in The Edwardian Country House (2001) and even the old American West in Pioneer House (2005).

Nicole Maycock

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Video Clips
1. Title sequence (0:50)
2. Catherine (2:20)
3. Food (1:05)
Complete episode (24:02)
Social Experiment TV