“It’s a bit bleak isn’t it?” It’s a statement more than a question and an understatement at that. The speaker is Graham, a grandfather who, along with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren are participants in “Victorian Slum House,” a PBS show (renamed from the original BBC2 production “The Victorian Slum”) that puts real people in a recreated east end London slum to experience what life was like for the 19th century poor. The series, as the narrator Michael Mosley says, “brings the forgotten world of the Victorian poor back to life.” In doing so it offers an eye-opening look at the harsh economic and social conditions that starkly divided Victorian society. Life is literally a daily struggle for survival and you’ll find yourself celebrating the participants’ small triumphs as much as they do.
Mosley is both narrator and teacher, dispensing historical information in an engaging way. Each episode represents a new decade starting with the 1860s and the production mixes modern day images with archival photos. As Mosley walks the streets of today’s London, photos of Victorian London flow in behind him to replace the new with the old. It’s a strong visual effect that adds a lot of interest to Mosley’s oral history.
The participants represent a mix of skilled and unskilled workers, as would be found in the slum community of the 1800s. Graham is in the role of an unskilled laborer who must find work daily. He quickly learns how precarious his situation is when a back injury on day one puts him out of action and his family has to make ends meet by constructing artificial flower decorations. There is also Andy, the rent collector, a single mother and her two children and the Howarth family of four, whose father is a skilled tailor. Another couple runs the slum food shop.
In episode two, a pair of Irish siblings turn up with zero money but determination to get out of the “dosshouse,” the place where slum dwellers were forced to sleep when they could not afford to rent a room. Beds in the dosshouse were either coffin shaped constructions or the “hangover bench,” which was a bench with a rope at chest height. Sleepers hung their arms over the rope like deflated puppets.
Sleeping puppet-like is what every person wants to avoid so they take on whatever work they can get including gluing matchboxes together and plucking chickens to dye and sell the feathers for wealthy ladies’ hats. The children are surprisingly resilient and quickly adapt to their new relentless existence. The tailor’s wife, Mandy, finds a silver lining in the small moments of happiness and sense of shared struggle.
The economic and social conditions that the participants experience change along with the Victorian’s attitudes. What begins as a strong belief in the poor as undeserving of help in 1860 shifts four decades later to a national debate over the state’s role and responsibility in the welfare of its least advantaged citizens. The overall effect of the show is one of “living history” rather than reality TV and its well-informed portrait of London’s poor across the decades raises timely questions about those struggling through poverty today.
“Victorian Slum House” is on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. EDT on PBS.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.