y calling its latest televised social experiment Regency House Party (as opposed to Colonial House), it may seem as though PBS is trying to sex up its image. It is, and one can only imagine the mix of consternation and glee the posh British narrator felt instructing us on how “regency bucks” liked nothing more than to “talk dirty” and “pah-ty togeth-a.” What’s more surprising, though, is that not long after one participant declares the Regency period “sexy,” we’re inclined to agree.
Here’s the premise: Ten single men and women (and some chaperones) go back to 1811 to play Jane Austen’s mating game for nine weeks in an English country house. Like previous PBS reality shows 1900 House, Frontier House, Manor House, and Colonial House, there is bonnet-wearing and the forgoing of showers, but this is the first time participants haven’t been growing their own crops or slaving away in somebody else’s kitchen. As explained by the narrator, the Regency era was a period of excess that began when George III went mad in 1810 and his son, “the most extravagant prince in history, showed his people how to party” by bedding multiple mistresses and downing fifteen bottles of port a day.
Constant drunkenness was apparently necessary due to the era’s lack of clean water, and the young, horny cast seems happy to oblige. The men are the first to arrive, and they begin by laying wagers on bagging the ladies’ petticoats. Then they get so monumentally wasted that, by morning, one man has “unwittingly spent the night on the lawn” and another must take the “customary draft of ale” with his breakfast. “Only six hours into the experience,” the narrator explains, a little too excitedly, “the men are behaving EXACTLY as their Regency counterparts!”
Each participant has been given the rank and back-story of the person he or she might have been two hundred years ago. The role of Kentchurch Court’s handsome and arrogant master — the show’s Mr. Darcy, as the narrator points out — goes to twenty-nine-year-old Chris Gorell Barnes, a real-life ad exec who lives in a duplex flat in London. He is indeed handsome and arrogant, though not nearly as dark and mysterious as Austen fans might like. His female counterpart is the pixie-ish Countess Latuska Griaznov, who plays a Russian heiress whose family was secretly bankrupted by the Seven Years War. (In modern life, she works as a barmaid, reviews horror films, and is — no shitting — a real penniless Countess.)
As one might expect, the participants spend the first giddy days struggling to buck off modernity. The willful “industrial heiress,” Miss Victoria Hopkins — in modern life a marketing executive for her father’s engineering company — tells the hostess of the party to “fuck off” when she’s not allowed to snort snuff with the guys. The same hostess is shocked when a lady’s lowly companion (really a college student) consorts with and then breaks her engagement to an army captain (really a Brighton hairdresser). Engagements were considered legally binding in Regency times; if broken, the wronged party could sue.
Away from an environment in which all encounters with the opposite sex are come-ons and all tubs are hot, though, the participants soon realize the allure of a courtship in which mystery is paramount. Instead of being oppressive, the rules become a tool of liberation from modern ideas of sexuality.
“I’ve become very giggly and girlie, and the idea of being a sexually attractive woman to somebody . . . it doesn’t feel right,” remarks Miss Hopkins. After a roguish musician visitor kisses her and blabs to all the men, she reconsiders her twenty-first-century hang-ups and gives the sweet, shy man she’d previously rejected a second chance.
The other big romance of the show between Mr. Foxsmith, a high school science teacher pretending to be a clergyman, and the much-older Lady Devonport builds as the couple sneaks off together to write poems, fly kites, and explore the magic of gas lamps and electricity.
At first glance, with its corseted-boob shots and bare-knuckle prizefights, Regency House Party looks like public television’s shameless bid for Real World devotees. But in practice what we’re watching is a Real World generation regressing back to its summer camp days, when girls were separated from boys and romance was built on finding a daisy chain on one’s bed or feeling the skin beneath a sleeve — secret, chaste encounters away from the watchful eyes of chaperones.
Regency House Party‘s kooky, passionate cast wouldn’t last through one rose ceremony on The Bachelor. The awkward, bespectacled Countess serves herself up by lying on the dinner table dressed only in fruit. A giddy Lady Devonport is seen preparing for a midnight ghostwatching rendezvous with Mr. Foxsmith in her underwear, vericose veins and all. So how ironic it is that they provide what all the Blind Dates and the Joe Millionaires and the Fifth Wheels of the world never could: real heat. n°