Time Crashers proves there’s still life in reality TV

From hilarious tomfoolery to genuine history teaching, this series has it all, says Alison Graham

Mighty Greg Rutherford, supreme British long-jumper and winner of Olympic, European, Commonwealth and World Championship gold medals, is rubbish at moving at speed while carrying a foot-high jelly. No podium bouquets for you, young man, not when the jiggled jelly cracks open into great gobbets as Rutherford doubles into helpless giggles.

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It’s a howlingly funny sequence from Time Crashers, Channel 4’s delightful historical reality show (Sundays, 8pm). Yet when I first read the synopsis my sigh could be heard in Uzbekistan. A bunch of celebs? Dressed up to show us life in different historical periods? Just wait for all the faux-bolshiness as they object to being ordered around, or the offending of their 21st-century sensitivities as they’re asked to do something unpleasant but historically accurate. Like doing laundry in urine, a revolting task undertaken without complaint in episode one by plucky BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin.

There’ll be the squeezed-out tears as the Presenter You’ve Never Heard Of or the Footballer Who Was Slightly Famous Once feels sorry for the downtrodden proles. Then there’ll be the return to their celebrity lives as wiser, more socially aware men and women. Bleurgh!

But Time Crashers throws out all these weary clichés. Its celebs, for the most part, have been around a bit and are intelligent people who really don’t need to do this kind of thing. Along with Minchin, for example, there’s the splendid Fern Britton, actress Kirstie Alley, “bad boy/manchild” Keith Allen – confident men and women with a place in the world. And Meg Mathews (a “socialite”, we’re told, as if it’s a job).

Keith Allen in Time Crashers

For the most part, everyone’s bright and engaged, though one of the young ’uns is a cry-baby who, after tearfully refusing to pluck pheasants in an Edwardian kitchen, is given a brisk, period-appropriate punishment.

Allen and Alley are revelations. Both of them take the whole thing very seriously. In this week’s episode, when the Crashers have to dress up and behave like Edwardian servants, valet Allen gets on his knees and clips his master’s toenails with remarkable subservience. Alley – whose considerable Hollywood career is admittedly more behind than in front of her, but she’s still quite famous – doesn’t muck about either.

Britton and Minchin are becoming a great little double act. Minchin is quite stern and Britton is a splendid mutterer who is routinely told off for talking. All of this is backed up with contributions from historian Cassie Newland and Tony Robinson, so I always feel I’ve learnt something. For instance, I didn’t know footmen were paid according to their height.

Meg Mathews, Louise Minchin and Fern Britton in Time Crashers

This Sunday’s instalment, when the gang are below stairs at an Edwardian mansion, shows up Downton Abbey with its cosy confidences between servants and masters/mistresses as a fiction. Servants were barely acknowledged and were treated as invisible, non-people. The Jelly Incident comes as Rutherford (the lowest of the low, a hall boy) and comedian Chris Ramsey belt backwards and forwards to serve courses at an outdoor shooting-party lunch.

The rocking jelly is the final straw as the pair, exhausted and slightly hysterical, crack into laughter. But it’s still treated seriously – messing up a splendid dessert in real 1913 England would have meant the sack, and penury, we’re told. And all the Crashers look worried that they will land in trouble with their very stern bosses.

You might even find you have something in your eye when the episode ends with Rutherford receiving a touching little gesture. He bursts into tears with what looks to me like genuine empathy rather than reality show onion-tears. So maybe there’s still life in this fading genre?

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Time Crashers continues on Channel 4 tonight (Sunday 6th September) at 8.00pm