Narrated by Richard E. Grant
Starring Chris Gorrell Barnes, John Everett, Jeremy Glover, Larushka Ivan-Zadeh Griaznov, Victoria Hopkins, Fiona Rogers
Released by: PBS Home Video.
My Advice: If you’re a fan of Jane Austen novels, rent it or pick it up.
What would it be like to be a single man or woman living in 1811? Without clubs, bars, or workplaces where men and women are allowed to mingle, how would you find a life partner? One answer was to attend a fashionable house party to meet eligible young men or women and hopefully find a mate that would be a match emotionally as well as financially.
[ad#longpost]If you were a young man, you would have all the independence that your income afforded you. The men of the party are given identities to match their real-life stations in life: their new lives include a businessman, a naval captain, a celebrity hairdresser who bought a military commission, and others. The men spend their days with a myriad of things they can do, anything from target shooting to training for a sports tournament, as well as drinking as much as they want or taking snuff (in lieu of cigarettes for the smokers).
If you were a single woman in this period, however, your life would have had much less freedom. The women on the program are all accompanied by a chaperone, usually a married older lady whose job it is to secure them husbands over the course of the summer and make sure that they are abiding by society’s rules. And for the women of this century, following the rules is harder than it sounds. They are expected to spend most of their time indoors in quiet activities such as needlework or reading, or maybe even venturing outside for a walk (with the protection of a sunbonnet or a parasol, of course, but never alone with a man). The men and women are usually segregated until meeting in anticipation of dinner, which everyone shares. Keeping to the rules would have been essential to keeping a good reputation and hopefully, increasing your chance of landing a rich husband. However, the older chaperones are not bound by as many rules of propriety as the younger single women are. It was apparently rather common for these women to have discreet affairs during such parties, and this one is no exception.
Because of all of the separation of sexes and the difficulty with which the contemporary participants have adjusting to some of the rules, they are allowed to engage in many activities together, conducting science experiments, having a village fair, watching and participating in sporting contests, and finally, attending an unchaperoned masked ball. The object of the house party is to obtain a mate, preferrably the most eligible in terms of wealth and position. But perhaps because of more modern dating practices that the participants are used to, most of them are reluctant about declaring themselves ready to take the plunge, even for the purposes of the program.
This “reality” show, like others that have aired on PBS, are a bit different: they not only follow the lives of the people involved in the project, but are also very keen on dispensing historical facts about the time in which the participants are re-creating. However, being a reality show, there is a lot of drama and angst that surrounds the party. There are lots of tears as hearts are broken and feelings are hurt among not only the younger guests, but the chaperones as well, and at times the cameras seem a bit too voyeuristic for a historical recreation endeavor. But even if you are watching it for the lurid escapades of the men and women at the party, you can’t help but learn something as well. I ended up remembering much more about everyday life during Regency times than I do about the people on the program. The narration also covers larger historical events, such as how the war with Napoleon affected many British citizens, or how popular illegal bare-knuckle boxing was. The show incorportates many of these larger historical trends; the participants at the house have a naval battle on the pond with toy ships and slingshots, and yes, the men do host an illegal bareknuckle boxing tournament.
The biggest disappointment about this set is that there are zero features. BBC 4 has a website devoted to the show, which has cast profiles, historical notes, quizzes, and interviews with the cast and producers after the show aired about their experiences. I would also love to know more about the behind-the-scenes of production with historians and craftspeople whose work was so splendid. Given all of the peripheral information available, I am rather annoyed that there is nothing on the discs. Even a short cast profile would have been helpful, especially at the beginning when you’re still trying to remember who is who. But the other material, particularly the after-interviews would have been a fabulous addition to the experience.
Despite the zero fetures, however, I would encourage anyone interested in the Regency period to at least rent the set (and when you’re done, find the website and look at all of the features that the discs fail to share). The historical tidbits alone make it worthwhile, and watching the drama unfold, while a bit voyeuristic, is interesting as well. Plus, the house they are in is gorgeous (there are wonderful shots of the house and grounds between sections of the episodes) and everyone wears fabulous costumes, which make the show rewarding as well.