How do you like your Victorians? ITV has gone for dazzling country house sets and sumptuous costumes in its hit series Victoria, which ended this week. It’s timely, then, to get a glimpse of how the other half lived – and the setting couldn’t be any more different.
Forget Harewood House and Beverley Minster – BBC2’s new living history series has been filmed in a once-derelict London fire station that took its name from a Victorian sanitary inspector. In fact, so rundown was Alice Billings House that safety improvements had to be made before the film team could even move in and start to turn it into a dilapidated 19th-century East End hovel.
The Victorian Slum takes a group of modern-day families back in time to experience the grim reality of life for the English urban poor. For three weeks, the slum dwellers – all of whom have an ancestral connection to London’s East End – endured life without a safety net (except, of course, the knowledge that they would return home once it was all over).
They learned traditional trades such as tailoring, candle-making and wood-turning to scrape together the money for food and rent – and suffered the consequences in the dosshouse if they didn’t quite manage. And for toilet facilities, they used an outside loo without a flush, occasionally smoking kippers inside to mask the smell of human waste.
Alice Billings House, a short walk from the Olympic Park and within sight of the City’s skyscrapers, was built in 1877 as part of the West Ham fire station. Used to house firemen and their families, it was closed in 1964 and has been earmarked for a future multimillion-pound redevelopment by Newham council.
“The most appealing thing was the courtyard in the centre,” says production designer Peter Gordon. “We needed an enclosed environment for the world we were creating. We wanted the whole thing to be absorbing; the participants had to really live like they did in the past, so we built great tall fences to close out the world.”
Into that courtyard they imported three tons of mud, all in the name of authenticity. Gordon believes that’s what sets The Victorian Slum apart from other programmes set in the same period: “The Victorian era has been done to death. There’s no point trying to make a living history show that’s just a costume drama – there are lots of those. But by creating as absorbing a world as possible, we can help tell an evocative story about our history.”