Academic journal article Film & History

The PBS Historical House Series: Where Historical Reality Succumbs to Reel Reality

Academic journal article Film & History

The PBS Historical House Series: Where Historical Reality Succumbs to Reel Reality

Article excerpt

THE PBS HISTORICAL HOUSE SERIES: WHERE HISTORICAL REALITY SUCCUMBS TO REEL REALITY

INTRODUCTION:

When PBS aired the first of the British-themed and produced historical "House" series, 1900 House, in June 2000, the network described the project as "classy voyeurism" and the place where "the sci-fi drama of time travel meets true-life drama."1 The success of 1900 House has since led to other Anglo-American productions, including 1940s House (2000), Frontier House (2001), Manor House (2002), and Colonial House (2003), and even PBS 's own version of reality dating (albeit in corsets and wigs), Regency House Party (2004) and paying homage to the romantic ideal of the American cowboy Texas Ranch House (2006). Determined to distinguish the "House" series from other reality TV programs aired on commercial networks, PBS producer Beth Hoppe insists that this is the only one "with something to offer. We're exploring history. No one else is doing that."2 But these experiments in time travel involve much more than re-enacting particular moments in the British and American past. As the families and individuals who volunteer for these series quickly discover, they cannot leave behind their 21st century mindset, nor do the producers want them to; after all, that is what makes these programs the "true life drama" and "entertaining and accessible TV" for which critics have praised them. Indeed, as Hoppe explains, the ensuing tensions between participants, as they struggle to adapt to unfamiliar living conditions and values, "come[s] from modern people with modern ideas trying to put themselves in a time in history when things were very different."3

The PBS reality house series (also described by Hoppe as "hands-on-history") is part of an on-going trend of the Heritage Industry in popular culture in which the public can safely revisit, critique, and learn the lessons of the past. For example, tourists can explore 19th century industrial villages in England; sit in a trench or air raid shelter in London's Imperial War Museum, or witness how New England colonists lived by touring Plimouth Plantation. For a few hours, history buffs can indulge their nostalgia for these sometimes hard but "good old days." But these interactive museums also present a very distinct and tidied picture of these pasts, sans rats, smallpox epidemics, falling bombs, and other historical dangers. What makes the PBS reality house experiments more "authentic" than such interactive museums is the total immersion process and length of time the volunteers spend in their historical contexts, ranging from three to five months. In these televised experiments, the volunteers do have to struggle for their subsistence, submit to authority, rely on older medical remedies, and abandon their modern dress for uncomfortable, and oftentimes dirty, period costuming. Despite these inconveniences, the volunteers are surprised by the ease with which they take up their assigned roles-the submissive lady's maid, the class-conscious butler, the domineering husband. Yet, the volunteers never fully become their roles, as they adapt their historical identities to their 21st century mentalities and experiences, as exhibited by the "servants" of Manor House mouthing off to their master or the "colonists" in Colonial House refusing to cheat their Native American trading partners.

Heritage critic Robert Hewison argues that what is created by historical reenactment projects (and we can include the historical House series in this category) is "simulacra," i.e., the image rather than the reality.4 Similarly, David Lowenthal notes that the more the past is appreciated for its own sake, the less relevant or "real" it becomes. In fact, the ultimate goal of the "House" series is not to revere the past but rather "to enlarge our sense of the contemporary at the expense of realizing its connection with the past."5 Manor House producer, Caroline Ross-Perie, attests to this intended outcome. …

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