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The 'Masterpiece Theatre' of Reality TV

'Manor House' on PBS brings class to the genre.

by Mark D. Johnson
May 2, 2003

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The 'Masterpiece Theatre' of Reality TV_Mark D. Johnson-'Manor House' on PBS brings class to the genre. PBS, long regarded by many as the sole bastion of quality television, is not immune to the Reality TV craze. As Fox continues to give the genre a bad name with low-brow fare like “Mr. Personality,” PBS helps to bring some class to unscripted TV with “Manor House,” in which regular British citizens are filmed while living for three months in a Scottish mansion as though it were 1905. The six-hour series was shown in its entirety this week, though many affiliates will rebroadcast episodes later this month (check local listings).

“Manor House” is the third installment of an ongoing project which started with “1900 House,” followed by last season’s “Frontier House,” all recreating authentic living conditions of the day, which always proves to be challenging for the spoiled modern-day participants. Like many Reality shows, the narrative is frequently interrupted by video diary entries of the cast members, providing personal insight into the goings on. Unlike the other shows, there are no voting-off or elimination rounds, there is no host (an unseen narrator guides us along), and no emphasis on sex appeal. True to PBS form, the pace is often slow and the content is educational (we are constantly informed of Edwardian customs), which means the average fan of “Joe Millionaire” would be bored to death.

In “Manor House,” the participants play their role, abiding by strict Edwardian rules, in an unscripted version of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Upstairs, is a real family headed by a successful businessman, Sir John Olliff-Cooper. His wife, Anna, is a doctor, who, in her 1905 role, is not expected to have opinions on anything other than household matters. They are accompanied by their two sons, ages 18 and 9, and Anna’s sister, “Miss Anson,” also a doctor, who has extreme difficulty coping with the sexism of the era.

The Downstairs servants are lead by the butler, Hugh Edgar, normally an architect, who fits the bill perfectly as he maintains order and discipline among the staff while having a relatively close relationship with the family. The lower servants are not permitted to speak directly to the family, which is a constant source of tension in the house. Working sixteen hours a day, and permitted to bathe just once a week, many of the servants are quickly overwhelmed and grow resentful of what they perceive as arrogance among the people upstairs. A scullery maid quits after two days, and her replacement quits soon after that. Clearly, the life of an Edwardian servant was most difficult, but hall boy Kenny and scullery maid Ellen manage to find enchantment in forbidden romance.

Those that claim that Reality TV as a genre is worthless trash ought to give this series a try. You might be one to prefer fictional storytelling, but surely this is a valid (and generally less predictable) form of storytelling. And with “Manor House,” you can actually learn a few things, which is more than you can say for most fictional shows. The series continues next season with “Colonial House,” which will recreate life as it was in the early 1600’s. As I mentioned in a previous column, the creator of Fox's "Married By America" considered his show to have merit as a social experiment, a point which I quickly dismissed. "Manor House" is a true social experiment capable of bringing enlightenment to both show participants and viewers.

My only complaint is PBS’ decision to air all six distinct episodes over three consecutive nights. They do the same thing with the lengthy Ken Burns documentaries, demanding unreasonable nightly dedication from the viewing public. Please, PBS – weekly installments only! Anything else is downright Edwardian!

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