What kind of reality dating show is right for PBS? One with impeccable manners, of course, and a British accent.
Make it a period piece, and it’s a perfect match.
“Regency House Party” lacks hot tubs, a glitzy Malibu mansion a la “The Bachelor” or contemporary canoodling. But it offers an elegant country estate, bare-knuckle boxing and a secret nighttime rendezvous.
For empty thrills, however, look elsewhere. The series weaves early 1800s science, medicine, politics and class and race relations in with the flirting.
The brief but influential Regency period, 1811-1820, gave root to personal trainers, the tabloid press, fashionistas and celebrity clout, according to the series.
With the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) serving as regent for his insane father and setting the tone — he collected mistresses and the equivalent of millions of dollars in tailor debts — it was an age of dissolute indulgence framed by social rigidity.
“Regency House Party,” airing 9 p.m. ET on four consecutive Wednesdays starting Nov. 3, is part of PBS’ “Hands-On-History” series that’s included “The 1900 House” and “Frontier House.”
The new program gathers 10 single men and women in an English country manor and asks them to squeeze their 21st-century psyches and behavior into an alien society for two months.
They act as characters of the time, some in roles closer to their real lives than others: A dot-com entrepreneur becomes a naval captain, a hairdresser plays an army officer, a countess is a countess. The houseguests are to seek the best match possible — which is to say the most financially and socially advantageous one.
Strict rules for men, women
The show is playful (listen for the strains of the “Dating Game” theme song) but not frivolous, said Jody Sheff, executive producer for Thirteen/WNET New York.
“If you were a woman or a man in the early 19th century, who you married and how you married was going to determine your entire life,” Sheff said.
The role-playing, though unscripted, tends to take the emotional starch out of the “Regency House Party.” Given that “The Bachelor” pairings usually disintegrate, however, it’s worth noting that a “Regency House” couple remained an item as airtime neared.
In place of the inflated, synthetic romance of network dating shows, PBS serves up a detailed look at a time and place made familiar by period artists such as novelist Jane Austen.
What can be discovered in Austen’s works, including “Pride and Prejudice,” about how little freedom was allowed women is made explicit in the PBS series.
As each guest arrives at Kentchurch Court, they’re given booklets containing rules of behavior for gentlemen and ladies. These are not suggestions.
“The etiquette of hand shaking is simple. A man has no right to take a lady’s hand till it is offered. He has even less right to pinch or retain it. A young lady gives her hand, but does not shake a gentleman’s, unless she is his friend.”
That’s for starters.
Seeking a spouse is serious business
Women are instructed to remain within the house, perhaps trimming bonnets or simply beautifying themselves for dinner in revealing dresses, while men ride, hunt, gamble and in general cut loose.
“There’s one line where someone says to the countess (one of the characters), ‘What’s it like?’ She says, ‘Well, we get little notes at the beginning of the day saying, ‘The kitten will be in boudoir for the ladies to play with,”’ said Sheff.
Their real job, to land a spouse and quickly, is made clear.
“Marriage is the only honourable career open to a lady, the only means by which she can increase her wealth and status,” according to the “Regency House” rules. “At the age of 7 and 20 you are only too aware of the fact that a woman of 9 and 20 left unwed can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.”
Status along with financial security were the goals.
“If you just had money, it wasn’t enough,” Sheff said.
The competition heats up when a rich, beautiful heiress enters the picture. That she happens to be black is historically accurate and not a nod to modern diversity, according to the series.
“Regency Britain hardly embraced racial equality but it had a healthy respect for money, and wealthy plantation owners and their nonwhite children were admitted into society and often considered a great social catch,” the narrator says as Miss Tanya Samuel is introduced.
“It’s nice to be able to enter into a house of affluence ... and not be a maid or a slave,” Samuel, the London fashion designer playing the heiress, remarks in the show.
Sheff hopes that viewers have their own “you are there” experience watching “Regency House Party.”
“My goal as a producer is always to be looking for the way I can really connect history with somebody’s imagination and make them feel it’s very three-dimensional and real.”