Maybe there's a sequel in the West
1900 House: time-traveling to the bad old days
Originally published in Current, June 5, 2000
By Stephanie Lash
Comparisons to MTV's The Real World are inevitable. In a four-parter starting June 12  on PBS, cameras follow a family of six as they cook, clean, eat, fight, play and work. But there's one big difference. Instead of living in a posh loft styled for MTV, the Bowlers live in a house with all the inconveniences from the turn of the past century.
They wear 1900 clothes, eat 1900 food and can use only appliances, technology and amenities from 1900. The 1900 House, as the title dictates, transports the Bowler family back to the era of their great-grandparents and then captures the results in next week's broadcasts.
The series, produced at a cost of more than $1 million by Wall to Wall Television for Channel 4 in England and WNET, New York, was originally concocted to celebrate the end of the millennium by exploring the ways technology had changed in the past 100 years, explained Beth Hoppe, executive producer for WNET. Producers renovated the house at 50 Elliscombe Road in Greenwich, Southeast London, with help of Daru Rooke, a cultural historian and senior curator of Armley Mills Museum. The Bowler family was selected out of 400 families to live in the house for three months last spring.
Hoppe said that although she had heard about the project in development, she was skeptical it could cross the Atlantic and appeal to American audiences. But walking through the house after filming was complete and viewing the rough cuts convinced her otherwise.
"I was just enthralled," she said. "I said, 'Who cares if they have British accents? This series will work in the states.'"
Producers had envisioned a series focusing on the technological changes of the past 100 years, but as soon as the family began their time travel, it was clear that the result would encompass much more. Joyce Bowler must take a leave of absence at her job as a school inspector to spend the monotonous days cleaning as a Victorian wife. Paul, her husband, keeps his job as a Royal Marine but attends work each day dressed as an officer of 1900. Eleven-year-old twins Hilary and Ruth are taken out of school to help their mother in a day-long effort to wash the family's linens, 17-year-old Kathryn battles boredom and her corset, and 9-year-old Joe goes on a virtual hunger strike to protest the food. Midway through the third episode, as the family battles an uncooperative stove and suffers shortages of hot water and baths, the ladies of the house revolt by smuggling in a lone item from 1999: shampoo.
"We did not expect shampoo to be the thing that drew them over the edge," Hoppe said, laughing. The women eventually decided to get rid of their clandestine purchase, a decision fueled by their true desire to live as a 1900 family.
The idea was also so appealing to WNET that it's developing a sequel to produce in this country--Frontier House, which will transplant a group of families into the Montana wilderness for six months to live as pioneers did in the 1880s, according to Hoppe.
The Bowlers said they had felt isolated during their stay as a 1900 family, and so the American project will bring together a group of families to move to the frontier, build homes, develop the land and survive as a group, which is they way most settlers traveled. "In this experiment, three months isn't long enough to know if you're making it," Hoppe explained. "They'll stay for a full growing season and at the end, there will be an added evaluation of 'Did they succeed? Would they have stayed?' A lot of people picked up and left, and they didn't make it."
WNET has signed Channel 4 as a partner and is raising money for the project, having already recruited historical consultants who will help design a life of authentic deprivation.
"Those details are really what the success of the project is grounded in," Hoppe said. "Being sure you get it right is what makes it really valuable. But at the same time, it's entertaining."
The Bowlers' trip back to 1900 may be followed by a similar excursion to the American frontier. (Photo: Chris Ridley.)
. To Current's home page . Later news: Frontier House goes into production in 2001 for broadcast in spring 2002. . Outside link: Website for 1900 House.
Web page posted Sept. 13, 2001
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