“I am m’lady and it is curious if people treat you as m’lady how you grow into the position,” says Lady Olliff-Cooper, in real life a casualty doctor called Anna, on the 2002 historical reality TV show The Edwardian Country House. “Sir John’s taken to his title like a duck to water and I think it’s really brought out the best in his personality. I even call him Sir John now.”
The premise of The Edwardian Country House, produced by Channel Four and broadcast in the US as Manor House, was not that different from other reality TV shows: put people in a house (in this case, the Scottish mansion Manderston), give them rules to live by, and film them. Re-watching it 16 years on, there’s something quaint about the dinginess of the “downstairs” scenes, and the way that the producers, presented with a group of half-decent looking young people, did not immediately strip them down to their briefs, but instead forced them to wear high-necked shirts and skirts that hid their ankles. As for the participants, it’s like they’ve never heard of sponsorship deals – their sole motivation for spending three months of their lives scrubbing dishes seems to be connecting with their ancestors, and history.
In 2002, when the show came out, my family watched it religiously. The show’s secret was the upstairs-downstairs tension – it turned out it didn’t take many 16 hour days for the servants (mostly young, with regional accents) to recall their 21st century workers’ rights, while Lady Olliff-Cooper and Sir John’s enthusiasm for the good old days seemed to swell with every carriage ride (Anna Olliff-Cooper told the Evening Standard afterwards that she would “absolutely swap my life for back then”; she also enrolled her son in boarding school). Early twinges of guilt were eclipsed by later scenes where Sir John reprimanded the servants for having too much fun. I remember being most captivated by the collaborators – the high-ranking servants like the ladies’ maid, butler and tutor, who slipped up and down the stairs, distrusted by everyone.
At the time, we saw The Edwardian Country House, along with other historical reality TV shows like The 1940s House, as a kind of curious window into a different time. But in the world of superyachts and Deliveroo, it increasingly looks like a dusty mirror, in which it’s possible to glimpse an uncanny reflection of today. What are Lady Olliff-Cooper and Sir John but the Elon Musks of this world, who reassure themselves their success stems from their talent, and not private education, access to computers at a young age, their gender and skin colour? “I’m very conscious that I’m at the top of the tree and that for other people it might be a much less enjoyable experience, but I do note to some extent this may be an attitude of mind,” ruminates Lady Olliff-Cooper.
Downstairs, meanwhile, the story is one of erosion of rights. The servants learn what it is like to be without sick pay, days off, or a right to equal wages. “The people upstairs were absolute bastards they walked all over the little people who were downstairs,” says Kenny the Hall Boy, who works as a care assistant in the real world. The series was broadcast four years after the New Labour government introduced a national minimum wage. Today, though, it’s hard to avoid thinking of the gig economy, the growing numbers of “self-employed” workers, and zero-hours contracts.
In The Edwardian Country House, the divide between service user and service provider is physical. “They’re finding out what it’s like to be masters and servants living upstairs and downstairs in a grand manor house,” says the narrator of the programme, who sounds uncannily like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Yet as the series goes on, it becomes clear the boundary exists in the mind too. It takes six weeks for Lady Olliff-Cooper to even visit the kitchen, and she doesn’t know where it is. In another scene, the butler blocks servants from telling the Olliff-Coopers directly of their hardship. Just like an Uber app, the house is arranged to make it as easy as possible for the service users to have their needs fulfilled, while silencing those who do the providing.
The Edwardian Country House was filmed at a time which, in retrospect, was itself a rare moment in history – the economy was growing, the world was opening up and Tony Blair was still cool. So why did the servants of The Edwardian Country House turn their backs on this, and sacrifice precious months of their youth in the scullery so that a middle-class couple could live the high life? The answer is because they believed in making the project work – in their dresses and suits, they attended the church that provided the moral underpinnings for Edwardian hierarchies – and more specifically they believed that the experience of immersing themselves in history was a worthwhile one. Is this really so different from the way tech firms discourage unions, but woo their staff on free food, campus-style offices and the promise that they, too, may one day be a “rockstar coder”?
After The Edwardian Country House, most of the cast faded into obscurity (Sir John is a local councillor; Second Footman Rob Daly is a freelance sports commentator). The most obvious legacy of The Edwardian Country House is the upstairs-downstairs drama of the 2010s, Downton Abbey. But Julian Fellowes’ characters are to the manor born. In an age of increasing inequality, where you can be catapulted into Silicon Valley stardom or crushed by the demands of one of its many apps, The Edwardian Country House is terrifyingly relevant. Its reality TV premise is a reminder that, when given a lucky break, it doesn’t take much for us to start justifying our place among the elite.
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.