Thank God it's all over;Features and arts

24th December 1999 at 00:00
Taking part in Channel 4's '1900 House' series was an unforgettable experience for Ofsted inspector Joyce Bowler and her family.

Doing 1900 House seemed such a good idea at the time. Three short months of prancing about in pretty frocks playing at house. Or so I thought. The rest of the family seemed to agree: it was all to be a bit of fun.

Well, maybe it was fun sometimes, but on the whole it was too raw and too real for words. What on earth made me think that being a turn-of-the-last-century woman would be easier, or more entertaining than being a turn-of-the-next-century one? I suspect it was too much Dr Who, Jean Plaidy and childhood visits to the Vamp;A.

Looking back, I am glad we went on our adventure. I had no idea it would feel the way it did until we got into the house. It was never easy: I not only lost the skin off my hands (soda crystals), but also my rose-coloured view of the past.

It left me feeling rather ashamed by the way history tends to get presented. We do it a grave disservice by tarting it up for modern consumption, like an endless made-for-TV costume drama with a sprightly soundtrack of violins and spinets. Our tendency towards nostalgia means we pick and choose the bits we like and, in doing so, we lose sight of the truth. It deserves far better treatment - the role of women in particular.

So has 1900 House made me a seeker after truth? Yes, I suppose so. I now feel almost evangelical in my quest to find out what really went on. I can no longer read a history book and believe what is said. What is an expert anyway? Someone who has read more books than me? I find it hard to believe that I was so unquestioning and naive before. I now feel the need to reform the entire museum service and the whole of our national history single-handed.

After four months of being back in the "real" world, I cannot go to a stately home or a museum and not find the experience coloured by the months I spent in 1900.

And what about the rest of the family? Well, level-headed lot that they are, they seem to have jumped back into their contemporary lives very easily. Kathryn's corset is nestled among the other jumble in her bedroom, cast off in a pile with her jeans as if it were part of her regular wardrobe. She's thinking of making it into a clubbing outfit.

Hilary, Ruth and Joe don't talk about 1900 House much, but I feel sure that it will affect them later in life. Paul is seeking a life after the Royal Marines and is up for grabs to the best offer. He still uses the 1900-style shaving brush and soap as it's best for his skin, but the cut-throat razor sits like an old trophy in his sock drawer.

When we left Elliscombe Road, I thanked God it was all over. It wasn't, of course - the series goes to the US next year. I can only liken it to being knocked down by a bus or winning the Lottery - one of those things that only ever happens to other people. Dear reader, it didn't, it happened to us.

So beware of answering small ads in newspapers if you are of a retiring nature. The opportunity to explore the past first hand was fantastic. But having said that, I'm glad I'm home.

* '1900 House' was a three-month experiment in living history to demonstrate how radically our lives have been changed by technology. Joyce Bowler and her husband, Paul, were joined at 50 Elliscombe Road, London, by their children Kathryn (16), twins Ruth and Hilary (11) and Joseph (9). The family had to dress in period clothes at all times, eat only foods typical of the period and in season, prepared on the equipment in the house. There were no modern appliances or products such as soap or washing powder or, more crucially, penicillin. The family had to live on pound;4 a week, which they managed by arrangement with local shopkeepers. There was no television or radio, and communications were maintained with the outside world by post. A Christmas special called '1900 House - A Year to Remember' will go out on Channel 4 on December 28 at 8pm.

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