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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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