Sunday, June 11, 2000

PBS' '1900 House' shows 'dirty, hard work'

        Exactly who called them “the good old days?” Joyce Bowler wanted to know. Mrs. Bowler and her family spent three months in PBS' 1900 House, a London Victorian home without electricity, telephone, refrigerator, computer, radio, TV, fast food or central heating. Their adventure will air as a four-week summer series, beginning Monday.

        “I knew it was going to be tough, but I thought I'd be much better than this,” said Mrs. Bowler, during a tearful emotional breakdown her third day in 1900 House.

  What: 1900 House
  • When: 9 p.m. Mondays through July 3
  • Where: Channels 48, 54, 16
  What did the Bowler family miss most about modern life while residing in the 1900 House?
  • Paul, 39: A hot shower.
  • Joyce, 44: “A quick cup of tea (from) a kettle that you could just turn on” and shampoo. (Her shampoo purchase at a nearby store became the subject of the third hour June 26.)
  • Kathryn, 17: Telephone, shampoo and hot water.
  • Ruth, 11: Potato chips, crackers and snacks.
  • Hilary, 11: Computer games, music (particularly her B*Witched CD) and “normal day sounds, like the washing machine.”
  • Joseph, 9: Pizza and the computer.
        It was her 44th birthday, and she had just cooked some soggy macaroni and cheese that “I wouldn't give to a pig!” (Did somebody say McDonald's?)

        The ancient coal stove, which took 28 minutes to boil water, gave new meaning to to the phrase “quick cup of tea.”

        “Everything takes three times as long, like the cooking and everything,” she said in the film. “It's dirty, hard work.”

        Especially when she went eight days without hot bath water and three months without such modern conveniences as a razor, vacuum cleaner, clothes washer or dryer.

        As daughter Kathryn, 17, complained to a 1900 House camera: “I've been dirty, smelly, greasy and skanky.”

        Then Kathryn brushed her teeth the Victorian way — with a pig-bristle brush dipped in bicarbonate of soda.

        “That was foul!” she said, spitting into the sink. @subHed: @text:

        More than 400 families volunteered for the English social experiment. Producers and psychologists interviewed the applicants before choosing the six Bowlers: Joyce, 44, a day-care inspector; Paul, 39, a Royal Marines officer; Kathryn, 17; twins Hilary and Ruth, 11; and Joe, 9.

        “I've always fantasized about time travel, not as a sci-fi kind of thing but historical,” Mrs. Bowler said at a PBS press conference in January.

        Applicants weren't told immediately that their experience would become a TV series. “(That) made us have a couple of second thoughts, because we didn't want to be in a television program. I wanted to travel back in time,” Mrs. Bowler said.

        By the end of their stay at 50 Elliscombe Road in Greenwich, in southeast London, they were glad that the world would witness their struggle, and envision themselves in their place. PBS' House is the second of three voyeuristic summer series, following CBS' Survivor (8 p.m. Wednesdays) and CBS' Big Brother on July 6. (PBS also plans a similar U.S. Settlement House series.)

        “I felt so strongly — we all did, really — that the television should communicate the essence of our experience,” Mrs. Bowler told TV critics. @subHed:Deconstructing the house @text:

        The Bowlers lived as a middle-class English family would 100 years ago. They ate turn-of-the-century foods cooked on a coal stove, which was also the primary source of hot water.

        Monday's premiere will be devoted to making the “Time Machine.” Camera crews show how the three-bedroom 1890 row house was deconstructed and refitted with gas lamps, fireplaces, chamber pots, bathtub, stove and a coal-fired laundry tub.

        The Bowlers wore period clothing, each given only three outfits and three sets of underwear. Kathryn and her mother wore petticoats and a corset, and made their own sanitary napkins.

        “When I first put (the corset) on,” Kathryn said, “I thought, "Oh, it's so beautiful. Isn't it such a lovely figure, lovely shape!'” (Man, I feel like a woman!)

        “A couple of months down the line, when you haven't washed them for a few weeks ... it didn't seem very glamorous,” she said.

        The children escaped the antique apparel for school. They changed clothes across the street, then changed back again after classes. But Mrs. Bowler's contact with the outside world was limited to shopping trips or four mail deliveries a day. She could write letters to experts when she couldn't find help in turn-of-the-century household advice books. @subHed:Relied on each other @text:

        In the third episode (June 26), cameras caught Mrs. Bowler cheating. After a disappointing experiment making cold cream from white wax and glycerin, she bought shampoo at a nearby store. (What's your favorite thing?)

        “It smells like something you might rub into an old horse,” Mrs. Bowler said about the homemade skin cream.

        The Bowlers said they only survived through teamwork.

        “It blew up the whole image that we had of the Victorian family, with the father at the head, and children being seen and not heard,” Mrs. Bowler said. “I think it's a broad lesson for the whole of history, not just the 1900s.”

        Mr. Bowler, who went to work in a 1900s military uniform, found it hard not living in our throw-away culture. When something didn't work, he couldn't just run out and buy another one.

        “You had to think, and be more positive in the way we actually approached things ... like with food. We had a certain amount of food if we shopped daily. If that food didn't work, we went hungry,” he said.

        Three months in 1900 House was “life-changing” for Mrs. Bowler. “I learned a lot about myself and each other,” she said.

        And she learned there was no such thing as the good old days.


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