The Victorian Slum, episode 1

The Victorian slum is a brand new show, only aired a few days ago.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this, not only because I am (of course) addicted to these kinds of shows and a history addict, but also because this is a subject that appeals to me.
For some reason I’ve always been more interested in the history of the common people, the workers, the poor, the down trodden and thanks to Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper and Charles Dickens, I am fascinated by Victorian England.
Will there be fog, gin addiction, opium dens, hansom cabs, tuberculosis?
Probably not.
You can only go so far when you have to deal with volunteers.
I know historians who boast about getting trench foot after spending too much time in a WW1 trench, who will show you the scar they got from being a little to enthusiastic with a Viking sword or who will tell you in (too much) detail how sick they got from drinking 200 year old wine they found in a shipwreck.
I myself smoked a 1940s cigarette I found as a teenager.
History addicts do crazy things and it is not that uncommon for them to take a few risks.
If they had asked me to take part in this show I would have signed any disclaimer they put in front of me and would only quit if doctors carried me away by force because, I don’t know, my head had fallen off or something.

But in these modern days of health & safety, how far does the production team dare to go, how real will it be?
The production company ‘Wall to Wall’ is well known to us, they have made many shows like this, including some of the very best.
But even they will probably not dare to put the contestants through what many people really went to in the Victorian slums.
As bad as you can imagine as it was, it was worse.
And even if they dare would/could they even let their contestants live in a hovel that is infested with rats, lice, fleas and other vermin?
I guess that if your contestants aren’t running away screaming and crying after the first night, you’re not doing it right.
But then you wouldn’t have a tv show.

Let’s jump in the time machine and see.

Episode 1.

Nice effect, overlaying historical images with the situation as it is today.
Something I did years ago in a photo series called Ghosts of History.

Oh no, they have to go and ruin the show with spoilers.
No dear tv people, we do not want to see what is going to happen next, we’ll see it when it happens!
Skip to around 3 minutes if this annoys you as much as it does me, resist the urge to throw your tv out the window or shout at it, think of the neighbours.

Ah we get our first look at the slums.
Quite impressive that they’ve actually done this in the heart of London.
As the presenter says, the air WOULD have been heavily polluted, how will they recreate that?
Somehow the modern day pollution, as bad as it is, doesn’t quite cut it when you compare it to what it was in the 1860s.
First look is good, I think I spot a few modern things, such as an alarm bell, electricity box (?), etc.
But the atmosphere is nice in a horrible way.

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Nice to see a Dosshouse, the worst of the worst way to spend the night, well besides in the gutter obviously.
Can’t wait to see that being used.

It seems like the same mistake is being made that they have been making almost since the very first show of this kind; they skip the preparations.
In ‘The 1900 house’, the first of the current wave of these shows, they had an entire first episode dedicated to how they looked for the house, redecorated it, hunted for the furniture, etc, etc.
Absolutely brilliant.
I always hope they do the same with a new show but they never do.
I want to see them finding this brilliant old building, hunt antique markets, do their research, start painting, etc!

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I love it when they bring a connection to the history they are recreating and the participants.
It brings a whole new level to the show when the contestants who take part actually have family members who used to live through it, for real.

The first room looks pretty decent.
Mmmh is that a rubber anti drip nozzle on that teapot?
Did they have those in the 1860s?
I don’t think so, the oldest example I can find is from 1914, which is older than I thought but still nowhere near the 1860s.
Better not zoom in and broadcast a long close up of it folks just in case history mad people are watching and… ah too late.
Now I have to write about it.
I know, nobody cares, who even notices such things, I’m sorry, history addiction is a dangerous and serious infliction.

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The stained walls look a bit fake, more like a theatre set than a proper dirty building.
The bedding on the other hand sure does look clean, cleaner than my bedding and I wash by hand.
To make things real they probably could have emptied a little box of coal ash and bugs into it.
But seeing a piece of crumpled up paper being used to fix a hole in a broken window is a detail I rather like.

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Mr Howarth, the tailor, I instantly like.
Just because he looks like he’s walked straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.
And he looks so excited, so keen.

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The stoves look way too modern, not the cast iron beasts I expected.
Yes I am pretty sure some of these are modern.
Maybe its not allowed to use originals because people sleep in the same rooms as these stoves?
Modern health & safety gone mad?

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The show shows lots of original photos of Victorian poverty.
They are wonderful and sobering, even though in this show they’ll probably keep reminding us of how far these contestants their experience is from how horrible things really were.

So far we’ve only seen the place during daylight, but I already got a sneaking suspicion that everything is a little too bright, too well lit.
A common mistake.
Film & TV people (I used to be one) want to show everything as clearly as possible and are afraid of the dark.
With as a result bright rooms that should have been dingy and dark.
When evening comes we see that whoever was responsible for the lights and filming made a mess of things.
Every scene clearly has a bunch of lights overhead making sure we see everything in detail.
How very silly.
A good team can make sure you still see what they want you to see without making it look like a huge Fluorescent lamp is hanging from the ceiling.
Such a shame.
With only oil lamps and candles, dirty and small windows and rarely any direct sunlight, Victorian slums were dark.
Showing and experiencing this is a huge part of the story.
A missed opportunity, again.

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And there is the modern light switch, hidden by a completely randomly bit of dirt fabric tied around something at the bottom of an electricity pipe…
I would have just placed a plank against it, a more subtle solution.

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It is quite nice, well not nice, but poignant to see how quickly poverty, even fake pretend poverty, has an impact on the contestants.
Day 1 and they are already genuinely worried about being able to pay the rent.
Going to bed with their clothes on, sharing a bed.

The boy is upset about not being able to have a biscuit when he describes this feeling as a ship sinking inside him I actually teared up a little.

The men go out to work.
Nice to see Mr. Potter walking around modern day London in his poor Victorian clothes.
Even as a slum dweller in dirty old clothes… he is better dressed than most modern people.
Wonderful, they found our contestants some wonderful period jobs.
Really nice to see Mr. Potter working in a bell foundry!

Fascinating, one of the men has an artificial leg, we see what a Victorian artificial leg looked like but won’t wear it.
Who am I to judge the man for not wanting to wear a proper Victorian artificial leg, I doubt I’d manage very long with one of those.
As a sort of concession a mix between a modern and Victorian artificial leg has been made, Victorian look but fibreglass and custom made for his stump.
I would have liked to see him  try and wear the Victorian one for a bit before moving on to the modern version though.
Not saying that he didn’t of course, but I mean I would have liked to see him try it in the show and tell us about comparing it with the modern one.
I think going with the reproduction leg is a very good alternative to wearing a wooden one which I think would have been hell for Mr. Gardiner.
You can read a fascinating article about how the leg was made by clicking here.

Some of the genuine Victorian photos they show are truly heartbreaking.

The contestants are working really hard, not much moaning, but just getting on with things.
And it is not easy fun work, just for show, but actual tough manual labour.
Poor Mr. Potter is falling apart though.
Having seen how hard he worked, I can’t blame him.
These people worked harder than most of us ever will and they did it day in day out.
So nice to see the tailor teach his son and his wife his trade.
Already they are noticing how this kind of life brings a family closer together.

Poor Mr. Potter, he worked too hard in the foundry and his back has given up.
What a wonderful brave man, working to the edge of his capabilities and beyond.
I think he knew he was pushing it when he did the work but did it anyway.
An attitude I hugely respect but a choice he came to regret.
Seeing him in agony by the window while his family looks on with compassion  is sad but wonderful at the same time.
Almost like a painting.

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I couldn’t resist making this screenshot into this;

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Time for the children to go out to work.
The daughters are wonderful girls, they do their bit without complaining, they take their experience very seriously and clearly love their granddad very much.
I reckon selling watercress on the streets of London today in Victorian clothes might actually be quite a good bit of business!
I’d buy one even if I didn’t want any.
And as terrible as child labour is, it is clear to see that the girls feel a certain amount of well earned pride of being able to do their bit.
Their work saved the family, that must feel fantastic.

A subject so far left alone is one I don’t really want to think about but have to.
The way things are going for this family, it wouldn’t be long before the girls would start receiving certain proposals while out alone selling watercress.
Proposals too difficult to ignore if you’re starving.
Proposals that would ruin their lives even more.
Heartbreaking.

The families start to realise that they will be permanently in debt and that this is the vicious circle poor people got into and still do.
Once you’ve paid all your dues, there is nothing left and you’ll never escape that lifestyle.
It is difficult to imagine how bad that must have felt.
It would take a few more decades before society realised that the only way to tackle poverty was state intervention.

Lovely seeing an early morning shot of the Howarth family.
Something you’d never see on Victorian photos but so real.
The wife walking around in her undergarments, father with a hairstyle that looks like he put his finger in an electricity socket.
Very amusing.

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Mrs. Howarth looks gorgeous by the way, even early in the morning without makeup sitting on the floor in her long johns.
Nicer than she did in her modern clothes.

And here are the tears.
Mrs. Howarth realises what her ancestors went through and the connection that is getting deeper by the minute because of this experience suddenly makes her understand her history better.
It makes her cry, it makes me cry.

More crying.
Andy is also brought to tears, the experience is humbling, he realises that today we often think we have it hard but compared to what our ancestors went though, we all live like kings.
It is true.
As a history addict I put my life into perspective by comparing it with what life would have been like just a few generations ago and realise I really have no reasons to complain.
We’re spoiled.
As bad as things sometimes still are for many of us, we are lucky indeed.
Because of our ancestors who besides living through all these hardships also found the time and courage to fight for improvements.
We are lucky because of those who went before us.

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The market day is a nice idea, perhaps not completely representable of how it would have been because you know the people coming to the market are very willing to spend, just to be part of the experience.
They are there to buy something.
While in reality the contestants would have had to fight to sell their goods and just pray they’d sell anything at all.
I wish I could have gone to the market though, I’d love a handmade Howarth flat cap for less than 4 pounds!

Is that an alarm box on the outside of the building?
Sorry, I can’t help myself.

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Time to pay the rent…

Will the single mother be kicked out, will they dare?
Poor Andy.
Poor children, they take it very seriously.
Andy is too nice, he can’t kick them out, he has given them 2 extra days.
I think it is only a temporary stay of execution.

End of the first week and the first episode.

I’m quite impressed.
Of course it is nowhere near as horrible as it was, modern rules and regulations probably make that impossible today.
No rats, no bugs, no open sewer.
But still, the people are suffering and are experiencing the stress.

It is a shame that a few mistakes and short cuts were made, the bright lights the modern bits and bops you spot here and there, etc.
Things they easily could have avoided even though there aren’t that many, generally the atmosphere is pretty good.

But the contestants make up for a lot.
They are so well picked.
I like the families.
They are wonderful and just get stuck in, no moaning and so much understanding of their situation.

Oh every week is going to be a different decade, that is interesting.
This week was the 1860s, the 1870s next week.
Nice to see how things will change.

Can’t wait for the next episode!

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