24 HOURS IN THE PAST
What’s it like to be immersed, Truman Show- style, in the Victorian era? Jonathan Wright chats with some of the celebrities who feature in a new living history series on the BBC, 24 Hours In The Past
Six celebrities are taking part in a new living history TV series to see what it’s like to be immersed in the Victorian era
There’s a widespread perception that when celebrities make living history shows, they’re mollycoddled and wafted off to a good hotel at the end of a day’s filming. There’s more than a grain of truth to this picture, but not in the case of 24 Hours In The Past. When its six participants, including WDYTYA? veterans comedian Alistair McGowan and athlete Colin Jackson, rolled up to begin work on a series that recreates working-class life in the 1830s and 1840s, they were immediately and completely immersed in the early Victorian era.
“We stripped them of everything – clothes, luggage, phones, absolutely everything,” says executive producer, Emily Dalton. “Then they got dressed up. We had a pile of secondhand clothes to choose from, the point being that nobody at that point would have had new clothes so everything had to be sort of ill-fitting and smelly.”
For Jackson and McGowan, along with ex-politician Ann Widdecombe,
Outnumbered star Tyger Drew-Honey, TV presenter Miquita Oliver and actor Zoe Lucker, this was the beginning of four full days and nights when they lived as our forebears would have done. They toiled in a dust yard (essentially a rubbish dump), a coaching inn and a pottery factory, before finishing in the dreaded workhouse.
“One minute we were in the 21st century, but within moments we were in the 19th century, and it was quite scary because we didn’t really know what the expectations were until we had to genuinely graft,” says Colin Jackson. “That’s the only way I can say it: genuinely graft. And it was horrific work: you were uncomfortable, you had to work hand to mouth. Whatever you earned, you had to spend on food or booze to keep you going for the next day. I don’t think any of us were expecting it to be so brutal.”
This wasn’t a case of making things tough for the sake of it. The point is that most of us have working-class forebears, yet we know surprisingly little about their everyday experiences. According to Ruth Goodman, who got to dress posh and “wander round like some philanthropic busybody” as she cast her expert’s eye over what the celebrities did, we see the era through a “rosy glow”.
We didn’t know what the expectations were until we had to genuinely graft
That’s partly because we know more about middle class and upper class life; and partly because we tend to equate Victorian life with the latter part of the 19th century, or even the Edwardian era, when conditions for ordinary people had improved.
Shocking the celebrities
In contrast, many were in desperate straits in the 1830s- 40s. Those working in dust yards, for example, lived in conditions that we now associate with footage of rubbish dumps in the developing world. On their first day, spent at the yard, the celebrities had to undertake such tasks as sorting dog muck – prized because it was used in the tanning industry – from less valuable horse manure.
“There were times when you could see the shock on people’s faces, and there were times when you could see they thought we were making it up – and we really weren’t,” says Ruth Goodman. “The first night we said, ‘Well you already know where your cottage is, you’ve been boiling bones there,’ and the look of shock on Zoe’s face...”
Yet according to Goodman, the cottage, with its two small rooms and just enough space for everyone to lie down, would have been thought “pretty good” accommodation for the period. It was certainly better than boarding houses where people “hot-bedded” or even “hung, semi-standing up, over a rope” to rest. As someone who knew this kind of detail, Goodman says she sometimes wanted to say, “Come on, man up!” It’s probably just as well that she managed to restrain herself.
There was no let-up through the rest of the filming. As soon as the celebrities had finished in one location, they were whisked to the next, travelling in a blacked-up mini-van with no radio. Emily Dalton says that the production team hoped the celebrities might chat about what they were doing during these journeys, but in the event, “They were just too knackered.”
All pulling together
But while the participants shared a feeling of exhaustion, they each found different parts of the experiences more or less difficult. For Colin Jackson, it was particularly tough working at the coaching inn because he had to overcome his fear of horses. Alistair McGowan, on the other hand, enjoyed the horses but had to work close to 20 hours stoking a kiln at the pottery. Also at the pottery, Ann Widdecombe finally had enough of the dire working conditions. “There is a very hilarious bit where I lead a workers’ riot,” deadpans the former Conservative MP.
Widdecombe also missed 21st-century plumbing. “Through the whole week, the most difficult thing to cope with was the filth,” she says. “We didn’t have a bath for a week, we barely washed for a week, just hands and face, we didn’t clean our teeth properly for a week, no deodorant – it was horrible.”
In contrast, the celebrities’ final experiences, at the workhouse, while unpleasant, weren’t necessarily as terrible as you might imagine. “Physically, for a lot of them, it was a relief,” says Ruth Goodman. “These were the first beds that they had slept on the whole way through. And the food was plentiful, horrible but plentiful, and people were clothed in clean clothes – they were rough but clean.” Ann Widdecombe concurs. Picking oakum (a tarred fibre used in caulking, packing the joints of ships’ timbers) was at least an indoor job, even if doing the laundry was heavy work. “The workhouse wasn’t actually as bad as the other places,” she says. However, we mustn’t forget the deep shame that went with being forced to seek help from the parish.
So was there anything good about living in the past? While Colin Jackson, a man who pushed his body to the limit to become a double world champion in the 110m hurdles, describes the programme as “the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he also talks about the camaraderie of sharing hard times. “Your team members are the only people you can genuinely trust,” he says. “You know that they were going to pull for you, because if they didn’t pull for you to do your job, nobody was eating.”
But Jackson wouldn’t do it again, not unless he could be middle class or upper class. The working class experience our forebears endured was just too hard. “There are three crucial things for me: to be warm, to have food and to sleep,” says Jackson as he reflects on what he’s learnt. “If you take one of those things away, and you’re warm and you sleep, you’re all right. Or if you’re warm and you have a bit of food and you don’t sleep, you’ll survive. But when those three things are stripped away from you, it then makes every single hour feel like a week.”
The stars of 24 Hours In The Past, from left: Tyger Drew- Honey, Miquita Oliver, Ann Widdecombe,
Alistair McGowan, Colin Jackson and Zoe Lucker
Former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe led a ‘workers riot’
in the show