Time Crashers review: Keith Allen, Kirstie Alley and Fern Britton serve up a weird but fun history lesson

Ben Dowell is quite taken with a new Channel 4 show billed as Big Brother meets Quantum Leap – and the main joy is that the celebrities don’t take it too seriously

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Oooh goody, I thought, as I settled down to watch Time Crashers: it’s got Keith Allen in it. At least it will be funny.

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Billed by Channel 4 as Quantum Leap meets Big Brother, the broadcaster’s latest celebrity wheeze involves taking ten ‘slebs and crash-landing them in different periods in history over six episodes.

It’s a neat idea, if one in danger of coming across like a well-meaning kids show. While the opening episode did feel a bit like that at times, it was saved by its celebrities – they really are (for the most part) a hoot, and I’m not just talking about Keith Allen.

The appeal lies in their eclecticism. Here for the first (and almost certainly last) time, we have assembled Fern Britton (below), Cheers alumnus Kirstie Alley, actor Charlie Condou, footballer Jermaine Jenas, “socialite” Meg Mathews, BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin, long-jumper Greg Rutherford, weight-lifter Zoe Smith and comedian Chris Ramsey.

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The first episode forced them to work as servants in an Elizabethan manor house in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. Britton and Smith were among the kitchen servants – the lowest of the low. Their highlight was doing a clothes wash in urine. Meanwhile, Allen and Jenas were elevated to the slightly less menial status of household servants. The kitchen lot got pea soup for breakfast; the household lot got a fry up.

There were serious points to be made, and these were delivered by presenter Tony Robinson and social historian and archaeologist Dr Cassie Newland. We learned why so many women worked in the kitchen in the Elizabethan age and how the rigid class structure of the time worked in practice.

Fern (who we discovered when they bedded down is a terrible snorer) gave it her reality show best when she and Smith tried and ultimately failed to skin a boar’s head. Britton, we sensed, wanted this to be a moment of drama but it felt forced. Especially when Smith, belying her hard-woman image, decided to cry on cue because she couldn’t stomach the sight of blood. I wasn’t really convinced by this segment (really, Zoe? Were you really THAT upset?)

More convincing was Keith Allen getting the giggles when he and his team of lackeys had to serve up a banquet to various historical reenactment types assembled in the Great Hall for the mocked-up feast. It was telling how shattered everyone was after the two-day experiment (“It felt like slavery” said Alley).

500 years ago your life – and whether it was going to be fun or hellish – was determined by how high or low-born you were. It wasn’t all Greensleeves and Merrie England back in 1588 and here was the proof. Time Crashers taught me something. But above all it was a bit of a laugh. 

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Time Crashers continues on Channel 4 on Sundays at 8pm

Time Crashers: meet the celebrities

Louise Minchin on skinning a deer and washing with urine in Time Crashers