Little food, no showers, but at least no one had cholera: what it was like to star in 'Victorian Slum House'

Ever dreamed of going back to London’s East End in the 19th century, working ’round the clock, wearing the same filthy rags every day and subsisting on the odd scrap of bread?

What, no?

How about watching a bunch of other poor souls do it then? While PBS’ “Victoria” chronicled the extragavant lifestyle of a formidable young monarch, “Victorian Slum House,” on the same network, takes a very different view. The living history series that premiered earlier this month follows a group of modern-day Britons as they endure conditions of the working poor beginning in the 1860s. .

“The Real World,” except with the sort of jobs, housing and hygiene that made Charles Dickens blanch.

It was an offer Mandy Howarth, 48, couldn't refuse. For three weeks last year, Howarth, accompanied by her husband, Russell, a bespoke tailor, and their two adolescent children, Rebecca and James, moved into a tenement in the London neighborhood of Stratford. They shared a sparsely furnished room with no electricity or running water and worked from dawn until well past dusk on most days.

And it wasn’t just for the chance to be on television. Howarth, whose great-great-grandparents were Jewish tailors in the East End considered it a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to connect with her roots. “I wanted to really understand what they went through,” she explains by phone, “and the difficulties they struggled with so that I could have the life I’ve got.”

Producers at Wall to Wall Productions, which has made other historical reality shows including “Frontier House” and “Regency House Party,” focused on casting families with ancestral ties to the area.

For viewers, “Victorian Slum House” offers a stark contrast to the lush and often romanticized period dramas that Americans love to watch, most often on PBS. Each episode of the series focuses on a particular decade, starting with the 1860s. As the times change, so do the social and economic circumstances. There are riots, labor strikes and recessions. Newly arrived immigrants from Ireland and continental Europe, also “portrayed” by regular people, are treated with disdain and hostility.

Despite her resolve, Howarth was often stunned by the living conditions. Although her family did have a stove in their room, water had to be fetched from a shared pump in the courtyard. Her family had two buckets — one for rinsing plates and cups, the other for rinsing their faces and underarms. When they could.

“It was vile,” she says. “I didn’t see my body for three weeks.” (For James, then 12, not washing was a definite plus.)

Arriving the first day, she expected to find at least a loaf of bread and some tea but she quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat, they had to buy food “on tick,” a form of credit, then work nonstop to pay off their debt.

“In my head, to get through it, I said this is the best diet,” jokes Howarth. Still, she occasionally found herself bristling at the rigid commitment to historical accuracy, like when a hole appeared in her shoe. When she asked crew members about replacing it it, they asked her, “’what do you want us to do about it? What would a poor Victorian do?” she recalls. She was left to walk in the mud.

The Howarths worked as “sweated tailors,” sewing vast amounts of clothing, largely by hand. At night, they toiled by candlelight. Meanwhile their neighbors engaged in a range of menial tasks, including gluing together matchbooks by hand and selling vintage snacks (jellied eel, anyone?) from street carts.

Becca, then 15, and James, “literally, sadly ended up becoming our employees,” says Howarth, a human resources manager with a healthy respect for child-labor laws. “We didn’t have time for the nurturing and the love. We had to get the work done, so it was quite an emotional thing from that perspective, which makes you reflect on how lucky the kids are.”

But there were benefits too, Howarth says, with no television or social media as to distract them: “We all actually spoke to each other, which you just don’t do in 21st century life.”

As bad as the Howarths had it, they were among the relatively well-off participants.

Others were forced to stay at the doss house, where the accommodations include a coffin-shaped box for four pence a night, or for the truly desperate, a “two-penny hangover” — a bench strung with a rope to drape themselves over. (The rope was typically cut at dawn — hey, free wake-up call!)

“The depths of that poverty were really shocking,” says director Emma Frank. “The extent to which people were trapped — there was no way of escaping it, basically.”

There were, of course, limits to the squalor and deprivation producers were able to impose on the participants.

“We couldn't give them cholera," says Frank (please, don’t give Mark Burnett any ideas). Producers were legally required to provide adequate nutrition for the children, but sought whenever possible to stick to food that was typical of the era. Flushing toilets were also required.

The production crew was also careful not to eat in front of the participants and to knock on their doors before entering.

When production ended, the filth was engrained in Howarth’s body. It took “about two weeks for the dirt to come off under my toenails,” she recalls. Other effects appear to have been more permanent. Howarth, for instance, is no longer so quick to throw out leftovers.

“I’m a fairly different person now,” she says. “I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”

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‘Victorian Slum House’

Where: KOCE

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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