As if doing penance for Downton Abbey and Victoria, PBS is now paying attention to the working class with its new reality series, Victorian Slum House. The show scoops up a bunch of “21st-century Britons,” decks them out in long woolen dresses and newsboy caps, and inserts them into a “slum house,” where in successive episodes they experience what it was like to live in 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, and 1900. You’ll forgive me if, to these American eyes, the difference in decades seemed minimal. I mean, even when they hit the 20th century, the slum dwellers were still using one of their outhouses to make smoked herring. More on this tasty delight later in the review.
Working in the tradition of PBS shows such as Frontier House and The 1900 House, Slum House takes place in a period-accurate dwelling in the East End of London. Each family unit sleeps one clan to a room and subsists mostly on bread and cheese. They must earn money for their rent and, failing that, will be evicted. We’re shown what fate awaits them at that point: Nights spent on a “tuppenny hangover,” the apparently common practice of indigent folks paying two pence a night for the privilege of leaning over a strung-up rope to sleep.
One family sends the father off to work in a church-bell foundry to earn his keep while the others sit home gluing matchboxes together. We’re told that Victorian workers turned out “over a thousand” matchboxes a day. How many do our Slum-dwellers manage? Um, seven. And Dad comes home from the bell factory with a spasming lower back, making him useless for day-two labor. Uh-oh: The landlords of the building — another participating modern couple — must decide whether to toss the lot of them onto the street. It’s like Survivor, but with matchsticks and Cockney accents.
The show incidentally highlights a fundamental difference between Britain and America: Had an American producer wanted to execute this idea, he or she would have had to build an elaborate set to approximate 19th-century living conditions. In Britain, things are so old, Slum simply had to commandeer a London side street, strip down a small apartment building, install a wood-burning stove, and toss around a little extra soot. Every time one of the costumed contestants strays a few feet from the slum house, we see a bustling modern London street.
Predictably, once Slum House takes away the volunteers’ cellphones and vitamin water, they get snarly and weepy. “The whole experience is massively humblin’,” notes one fellow. The problem with Slum is that the pace of the episodes is crawlingly slow. The show expects you to be fascinated by watching one family try to make its rent by selling watercress, but this involves people dividing watercress into bunches and going out to ask 21st-century citizens to buy these grubby handfuls of wilting vegetables.
What’s that, you say? I’ve forgotten the outhouse-style smoked herring? No, I have not: Host Michael Mosley tells us it was common for (a) poor folks in urban England to share a communal outdoor toilet facility, and that (b) the outhouse was multipurpose, one of which was to brine some kippers and string ’em up inside the privy to age deliciously. This had the added outhouse benefit, says Mosley, “of disguising other odors.” Yikes. Can we put this summer’s Big Brother cast into the slum house, please? It should be nice and ripe by then.
Victorian Slum House airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on PBS.
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