Forget "Gosford Park." Forget "Remains of the Day." If you want a real glimpse of British Empire in its last decadent gasps, tune into PBS's "Manor House."
The six-part series, airing Monday through Wednesday at 8 p.m., features a volunteer troupe of 21st-century Brits who turn back the clock a full century. They bring a 109-room British country home to dazzling, depressing Edwardian English life.
This is unscripted television using real folk at its best. No money, complaining celebrities, or rats (well, maybe a tiny kitchen mouse or two).
The show is the latest in the PBS series of "let's play house!" in another time - and place. "The 1900 House" is self-explanatory and "Frontier House," explored Montana back in 1883, a shoo-in for the campers among us.
At the Manderston mansion, the functioning estate of a Scottish lord, an aristocratic family lives upstairs, while a full staff - including butler, hall boy, and French chef - reside downstairs. A camera crew followed them everywhere. Three months, two scullery maids, an illicit affair, and countless tears later, the group emerged bleary-eyed and grateful for the conveniences and freedoms of 21st century life.
All except the lord and lady of the house, that is.
"It will be heartbreaking to leave Manderston," says businessman John Olliff-Cooper, who became a lord for the show. His wife, an ER doctor in the 21st century, utters these remarkable words near the end: "I've discovered I don't much like the 21st century," and "we [my husband and I] are the last living Edwardians."
Those lines are delivered directly to the camera in the style of the show, which intersperses personal interviews with the ongoing events of the house.
In this context, those nostalgic lines from the upstairs crew are laugh-out-loud howlers, because they play against the unrelenting, 18-hour-a-day drudgery of the household staff, whose sole job is to feed, clothe, and clean up after M'lady, M'lord, the two young masters, and Miss Anson, the unmarried sister of M'lady.
It is a testament to their good sportsmanship that the Olliff-Coopers let themselves in for this sort of treatment, because the Edwardian era lends itself to nothing but an indictment of the ruling class of that time.
Seen as a foreshowing of World War I, the era was filled with reckless hedonism and rigid class consciousness to which the entire age succumbed, both up and downstairs.
But one of the pleasures of the series is watching all the hints of social and political changes that would transform the century during the short reign of Queen Victoria's playboy son.
Surprisingly, more than 80 percent of the applicants wanted to work downstairs. Kitchen maid Antonia Dawson explains that her interest was partly political. "It was a case of basically wanting to see how far women have come," says the 21st-century police dispatcher. "I've got my own house and car, good job, and I wanted to see the difference in how far we've come in a relatively short amount of time."
Hugh Edgar, the only member of the entire household whose job allowed him access to up and downstairs, played the butler. "I'm an architect, and my interest was to see how these mansions actually worked."
Kenny Skelton, who had the thankless job of hall boy - essentially servant to the servants - is a healthcare worker in modern life. As hall boy, he slept on a Murphy bed in the basement hallway, with no room to call his own. (He lost his privacy screen for leaving the manor without permission.)
"In everyday life, I've got quite a bit, really," he says. "I've got my own bathroom and stuff, and just wondered what it would be like to have nothing at all, to have no respect from anyone or anything like that...."
There are some wonderful human sequences. Near the end of the three months, the French chef and the M'lord come face to face at the traditional Servants Ball, held downstairs.
The Parisian-trained chef, who joined the series to experiment with authentic Edwardian food, refuses to shake hands with the lord of the house. "You have failed!" he mutters to Olliff-Cooper and huffs out of the room.
Apparently, Olliff-Cooper ordered the chef to cook fresh, modern food instead of the butter-heavy, overcooked, meat-laden dishes that would have been more authentic.
Early hints of both the women's and labor movements bubble up, such as at the family's charity picnic. Agitators from the Socialists of the Clarion Society have polite arguments with Olliff-Cooper over whether he mistreats his servants.
Miss Anson leaves the house for a brief stint, finding life as a pampered but socially constricted spinster stultifying. When she returns, she says that if the show were any longer, she wouldn't survive. "A woman [in this time] is either a child or an object," Anson says. "In no way is she required to be an adult."
When the Olliff-Coopers depart, Sir John remarks that the family will miss the staff and have great affection for them. In a surprisingly candid moment for a stiff English butler, Mister Edgar muses, "I don't think that fondness is reciprocated."