With Hall Boy Ken Skelton
and Series Producer/Director Caroline Ross Pirie
Thursday, May 1, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
The scullery maid quits in a huff. The first footman and the hall boy are found passed out on the estate grounds, still drunk from an all-night bender. And just when it seems that things couldn't possibly get any worse, the hall boy (Kenny) and the new scullery maid are caught doing more than the dishes. Such is Edwardian life at Manderston, a 109-room Scottish mansion, the setting for the latest PBS "hands-on history" series, "Manor House." Presiding over the young servants are the no-nonsense butler and the matronly housekeeper. And above them all, literally and figuratively, is the aristocratic family living a life of elaborate banquets and balls upstairs.
Hall boy Kenny Skelton, whose romance with scullery maid Ellen Beard has caused quite a stir below stairs, and series Producer/Director Caroline Ross Pirie were online Thursday, May 1 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the six-part cultural-reality series documenting the experiences of real-life, modern people living in a historic time.
"Manor House" aired on PBS beginning Monday, April 28 for three nights (check local listings).
Previous discussions in this series:
Lady Anna Olliff-Cooper and Butler Hugh Edgar (April 29), Sir John Olliff-Cooper and Kitchen Maid Antonia Dawson (April 30)
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Baltimore, Md.: For Kenny: What's happened since the end of the show with you and Ellen? I know they mentioned that you were planning on moving in together.
For Mrs. Pirie: What made you want to do this kind of show?
This is one of the best shows I've seen!
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Ya, we did move in together and then split up after a while.
Caroline: I did two before -- "1900 House" and I think we all have a lesson to learn by investigating our past in a physical way and getting a sense of what it's like getting into those clothes. I think that's exciting. We all like learning about ourselves one way or another.
Washington, D.C.: Thank you so much for having a REAL reality show. I can't tell you how nice it was to abandon the "reality shows" on the networks and watch Manor House on PBS. I'm a 22-year-old male and as such probably represent a demographic you never expected to hit. All the same, great job. My question is if you plan on doing any new shows (i.e., different time periods, etc), and if you have any intention to come to the U.S. to do a show of the same calibre and scope. Thanks!
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Obviously Colonial house is going to be happening in the U.S. I'm not personally doing that. I'm currently doing Regency House -- which is like the real "Pride and Prejudice" with five young men and women playing the mating game according to Jane Austen's rules.
washington, D.C.: Kenny, loved you! your reactions were priceless. I found "sir John" very difficult to watch, it seemed that he was enjoying his role a bit too much. Were you able to have any real conversation with him after the show, and was "sir John" still acting like a pompous aristocrat?
washingtonpost.com: You should read the transcript of yesterday's discussion with "Sir John" and kitchen maid Antonia Dawson.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Outside of the house when I first re-met him, I found him to be the same sort of horrid behavior which he did in the house. He goes on about all classes in society and he's an absolute nightmare in Edwardian times and 21st century times.
Somewhere, USA: Was the romance, the sleeping drunks by the lake, the increasingly pompous Lord, the nastiness of the cook scripted or improvised or examples of spontaneous actual happenings of real people in relationships that your editor used to create (with other events) a dramatic structure?
washingtonpost.com: In yesterday's discussion, Sir John said he was disappointed about the show time devoted to Kenny and Ellen's relationship, essentially saying it derailed the "historical" focus of the show. Would you agree, Caroline?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Not at all. I think that's just an example of what a complete -- he is. People would have wanted to hang him if we had shown more of him. Stuff like that is bound to happen. The fact that it happened was a surprise to everybody. None of it was scripted. I don't know, at the end of the day, it probably wouldn't have happened in Edwardian times.
Caroline: Historically, there were plenty of relationships below the stairs. An old butler told us stories about how he got to meet his wife in service, but people turned a blind eye. It was that sort of hypocritical society in a way. The way it played out in the open and that the butler talked about it wouldn't have happened in Edwardian times. Imagine being trapped in that society.
San Diego, Calif.: Caroline,
I am inquiring about the "unseen eye" of the camera and microphone. I assume you used digital video with primarily ambient light to reduce intrusion and costs, but still it perturbs things. Could you talk about what was done, where it was great vs. where it didn't work as well, and what you will do differently next time?
We much enjoyed the production and learned a great deal about the period.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Well, obviously I'm considering that now doing Regency. We used a digital video camera and didn't use ambient light. The whole house was full of film lights -- which don't show on camera. In the next production, I'm making a deliberate attempt to reduce the lighting as much as possible. We try to let things happen and observe them. The fact that when we went in a room that a camera person would have to dive under a table to reload a tape was intrusive. That did get in the way of it being real and I'd like to do away with that and have it be more observed. You do need some lighting and in order to put shows together, you need to build sequences and you need to get people coming through doors, etc. On the next production we'll have more cameras.
But we don't have hidden cameras. I think they look like surveillance images, you don't get involved with what's going on. You have to have a relationship of trust with the people doing it and hidden cameras would be a betrayal of that.
East Lansing, Mich.: I was impressed with how well Edwardian politics were presented. The copies of The Daily Mirror were a great device to spark conversation. Did the house receive a newspaper every day? Would there have been any other sources for news?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: With regards to that, it would have been basically word of mouth. It was great for me, for fuel to start rebelling again -- I'd sit at the table with the paper and start bringing up current affairs.
Caroline: The articles were selected to inspire Ken!
Kenny: Yes, there were papers every day.
New York, N.Y.: A question for Caroline: What daily interaction, if any, did you have with the cast, in terms of giving them advice or answering their questions? Also, were there any incidents during the three months where you had to stop the action, so to speak, and intervene?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Obviously, sometimes the crew were talking to the cast all the time to find out how things were going. We had to encourage them to talk so people watching the telly would understand what was going on and how it felt. It's not a normal relationship, but we got close over the 13 weeks.
There were a lot of times where -- we never stopped what was going on in the house -- for little things, like arrivals where we'd have to do them a few times to have enough shots to establish. Also because we have to talk about the historical agenda, we needed to have time in the program to explain why they're watching what they're watching. It's just actions, to carry the historical agenda.
Bath, Pa.: Thanks so much for an incredible 6 hrs of television. Manor House was really amazing. Did the experience make you look at your world differently? Did you have trouble adjusting to life in the 21st century? Do you keep in touch with the other cast members?
Kenny, would you do it again?
Thanks again for showing us what Edwardian life may have been like!
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: 21st century wise, going back was a piece of case. IT was really well to get back into normal life. There's no other way to describe it. Has it changed me? I've always had ambitions since I was a child and didn't change how I treat people. I don't know whether I'd do it again. I'd like to do another one. I'd rather not have done the whole thing, not even upstairs.
Washington, D.C.: What was the point of not asking the participants to read up on the era? It seems to me they would have been better prepared for their roles, especially the appalling amount of work and hypocrisy.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: We weren't told not to read anything.
Caroline: Some people did read up quite a lot and so did the family. I didn't encourage it, though, because you learn from people's mistakes. On telly, if someone glides in and does it effortlessly, you don't really understand that job. The family were very keen to learn up on etiquette and detail. The other thing would be you'd think "are these people for real?"
Marysville, Ohio: Ken: In yesterday's discussion, John said that "We were actually grateful and fond of the staff, though not reciprocated." Did you ever feel that the family did appreciate you? If the roles were reversed, do you think you would have played the "master" role more or less authentically than John did?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Personally, I think he was grateful of having his backside wiped, which in no way meant he was grateful to spend time in the house with us. That's a really important distinction. He'd rather have had us gagged for the duration.
I just couldn't do it, I'd feel rotten being upstairs.
Caroline: A very shrewd observation.
Okemos, Mich.: Caroline, when the scullery maids left the project, had the others already been recruited as understudies of sorts? Were there others waiting to replace any other members of the staff who might choose to leave?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Absolutely not. It was a flat panic. There were 8,000 applicants and not many applied to be scullery maids. So we didn't have people waiting in the wings. Obviously when we found ourselves without one, we knew where to go.
Rockville Centre, N.Y.: Miss Morrison hinted that one of the male servants was her favorite and that she would put a extra feather in his cap for the Ball. Which one was it?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Tristan, I think. I think she used to like to sniff his britches -- no word of a lie.
Caroline: I think that's in the American version. She was fond of them all in the end. She was a huge champion of Ken, but she never realized it.
Kenny: I did do in the end.
Randolph, N.J.: I believe that Sir John's statement of affection for the "below the stairs" staff was totally false. He was so filled with himself that he took no notice as to how hard the staff worked. It was very clear that he reveled in a life style that was borne upon the backs of his hard working servants. Do either of you feel that Sir John was truly Edwardian, or just coming into his pompous own? Incidently I find the Edwardian period appalling regarding the exploitation of the servants by the rich and am glad that it is over. What are your feelings regarding the demise of this period?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Demise of this era -- obviously between 1900 and 2000 the way England's changed is for the better. We have respect for people now trying to raise themselves as people. It's like a massive step forward. It's a time when we should be proudest of the country.
Caroline: I thought it was a despicable period and it got its comeuppance in World War I.
Kenny: John's an idiot.
Caroline: I think he'd say he was doing the job. He thought it was important to come to the house and do it, but it was clearly one he enjoyed. Also, he didn't believe -- he's a true Edwardian in a sense -- that people were equal. When I first met him I thought he was perfect for the job. He said he was looking forward to going back to a place where people knew their place.
Kenny: An absolute nightmare that man is. When we went to L.A. I couldn't explain to people how much I disliked him. Very stupid man.
Caroline: I feel sorry for him. Someone who feels like that in this era is so on their own.
West Hartford, Conn.: Why did you want to subject yourself for three months to a very difficult life?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: In my modern life, in England, everything's set out -- you go to work, out with the lads at the weekend and it's a straight road. That's how its going to go and I wanted to break away from that, to escape the monotony of every day life and do something I could look back on in 10 years. The way my mum brought me up was to always respect people no matter what class of people you are in, so I wanted to experience what it would be like to be one of the lowest people and feel that sense of camaraderie.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Some of the cast have admitted to "cheating" while on the show -- buying liquor, cigarettes, snack foods, and such. Where did you get the money for these goodies?
washingtonpost.com: And Caroline, did the crew just look the other way or did you actively discourage this behavior?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Where did the money come from?
Kenny: That's a bluff!
Caroline: We had accounts at local shops which could be used by the staff. If people abused the privilege, yes, we knew that was going on. We'd find things like a can of Coke and sanitary wear. Honestly, it was hard.
Kenny: It was only stuff like that. Everybody was doing their job.
Caroline: Everyone who came in to this engaged in what it meant to do that awful job. If I ever felt it was interfering with that, I would've put my foot down. They didn't get many privileges. Servants used to get tips from visitors to the houses -- that's how they made their money. So some of Sir John's guests left tips. In a flash house like that they would have had a lot of tips.
They weren't getting painkillers either. Msr. Dubiar made stuff.
Kenny: It made me feel odd, it did. I threw all this sugar stuff in a cup and drank it. It was a nightmare.
Staunton, Va.: You mentioned in the opening program that the family lives in various residences throughout the year. In the Edwardian period did any of the servants journey with them from residence to residence in the capacity of full-time employment? Please discuss and explain.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: The ladies' maid, footman. The skeleton staff would stay in the home and manage the house in their absence. They'd go to London for the ball season and then back to their country house for parties. If they were having guests they'd recruit more staff for that.
Also, the other thing we weren't able to represent is that people coming to the house would bring their own servants. When we had guests it put added pressure on the staff. Edwardians would have had their own maids and valets -- and it would've been welcomed. Instead of that, when the family had visitors it was a bone of contention.
St. Louis, Mo.: Were there any other non-televised romances, whether straight or gay?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: You're asking the wrong person here.
Kenny: Crazy people. Yes there was -- Antonia and Rob got a few drinks and ended up snogging. Charlie asked Ellen if she wanted sex one time as well and then if she was sure she didn't (that was before we were together).
Caroline: I never thought Charlie would see it through celibate.
Reno, Nev.: I am enjoying the show immensely! In the evenings, I make certain I'm on the sofa at 7:59, as to not miss a moment! Are the clothes, hats, jewelry original/vintage or costumes made for the series? And can you tell us about the original owner of the manor house? Did he inherit his title or make his own fortune?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: The chap who owns the house now's uncle made his money in biscuits.
Caroline: You got it wrong chap. Lord Palmer's father did make his money in biscuits, though. It was his uncle, but not on his mother's side. It was built by a hemp baron -- which was used for rope. It was big business. He also had a big herring fleet and made an absolute fortune. He was a gambler and built the house with winnings. He did the stables first, and then the house. He was new money and to ennoble himself he proposed to the daughter of a Lord who was then immensely important, the viceroy of India. He adored her and built Manderston as a copy of her father's house, but put knobs on it -- silver on the staircase and Amber walls. The sweetest thing is when they got engaged, he built the boathouse for her -- their initials were carved on it.
Kenny: Some said she didn't really like the house, so she preferred the boat house. They people in the house don't like Lord Palmer. In the local pub there was an old lady who had been power drinking port and calling him "Bloody Lord Biscuit -- staying at that bastard's house are you?" The weather was good, so we thought we'd go on about Lord Biscuit.
Caroline: They were biscuits barons.
San Diego, Calif. Before watching the show, I was concerned that it would essentially just be a contrived soap opera with a thin educational patina (not unlike the Simpsons parody of this genre). However, I was reasonably pleased with its content.
None-the-less, I would like to know how the on-screen participants were recruited and whether the producer(s) sought specific (complimentary) personality types to ensure that there would be adequate "drama" between them for the series.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: Obviously -- this isn't drama -- so it works when people who are doing what they're doing can relate to it in some sort of personal way. So I was looking for people who if you took them back 200 years would have found themselves in that predicament -- being a hall boy, for instance. I was looking for people who could communicate well, Kenny being the champion. People who could talk openly and that had imagination.
Kenny: I think I was chosen -- I genuinely don't know why?
Caroline: Want me to tell you? I saw Kenny's audition tape and he seemed to have a genuine ambition to go back. "Titanic" was around at the time and he'd obviously seen it. He looked sympathetic and he's articulate -- very clever in how he expresses his ideas. To be perfectly honest we weren't going to bring him in till later because he was a bit of a firecracker, but when the first scullery maid quit he was brought forward.
Marysville, Ohio: Ken: Several other people have mentioned how badly the last few days at the Manor House were. Some of it -- like burning Sir John in effigy -- came across on film, but a lot didn't. Can you shed any light on what happened, and why?
Caroline: In yesterday's interview, John said "We went in to investigate that period and ended up with something of a soap opera... We can't wait to see "Regency House," which is just being made. I hope they don't allow it to become a soap -- a regency romp."
Do you think this is fair? How do you balance the desire for ratings and drama with the need to be authentic to the period?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Last few days, I thought they were superb. Best days of my life.
Caroline: There was a lot of tension with the family and the below stairs people thought there would be a bit of an ease up and then the family invited more people in.
Kenny: The last two weeks it would've been nice to finish up on a high note, but they invited friends over for the whole weekend and when they do that and have a five course meal, you've got a million items of fine china, silverware, that you're washing with bicarbonate for five hours. And then we wanted a servants ball and there was no enthusiasm. Mr. Edgar did all the work. We were supposed to stand when the family came to the room, but I didn't -- my own little protest. I love it.
Tuxedo Park, N.Y.: The whole situation with Mr. Raj-Singh seemed really awkward. It looked like Master Guy, often going out of his mind with boredom, spent a lot of time below stairs to escape his tutor (who also needed a break from Guy).
Did Guy develop any close relationships with you or the footmen or maids? Did Mr. Raj-Singh ever thank the servants for their work when the cameras weren't on?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Master Guy is one of the cleverest children I ever met and I think he's lovely. Unfortunately with him he was stuck with Mr. Raj-Singh for a tutor, but I could never seem him running around with Guy or playing rugby. He just wanted to catch butterflies. With Master Guy, he'd shoot himself in the foot. He'd come downstairs, but if there was trouble he would run and tell his mother. And then other times people would sit down and talk with him. He's a nice little kid. His parents seemed to go a bit rude towards the end with him, saying how he's misbehaving, which is natural with a kid not getting any attention.
Caroline: I'd like to say that it is well known that children who grew up in houses like that were very close to servants. Real aristocrats know how to treat servants because they grew up close to them. Gentlemen often had relationships with the maids and these were the only women they were really close to. They were too formal upstairs to be intimate.
washingtonpost.com: And Jonty?
Kenny: No malice in him whatsoever. He had the same grievances with his step-father as we did. Whenever I spoke to him he was polite. He recognized -- I'd talk to him and he'd say I shouldn't be talking to you then he'd say "oh, sod it."
Bellevue, Wash.: Kenny you were a riot. How have you gotten so wise at such a young age?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Wise... do I find myself that way? Does sarcasm count? I am wise, I think. I like to put things in plain English.
Bethesda, Md.: Caroline: Where did the idea for such a unique and interesting reality show come from?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: In the 1970s there was a BBC production something like "Minding the Stone Age" and they'd taken a lot of volunteers and they would build stone houses and live like stone age men. It became a huge media event because people were wife swapping.
Kenny: I wish I'd done that one.
Caroline: It was kind of like "Big Brother" really. "1900 House" was born of a discussion -- the producer Alex Graham was trying to sell Channel 4 about how technology had changed our lives. This was at the time of the millennium. It was a time when a story called "Driving School" was popular -- it wasn't called reality TV -- but it was people observed doing small challenges. And we hit upon this and that's how the idea was born.
New York, N.Y.: Being the lowest ranking servant in the manor how did you motivate yourself everyday with getting up and having such a grueling day, knowing that you could walk back into the 21st century at any moment... what kept you going. Was it your love affair? Was it a sense of good teamwork? Was it pride?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: No, not at all. I'll tell you. When I went into the house my family said I would never survive, so going in there I was like I've got to stay to the end -- not conceiving how horrific it would be. But I couldn't get out because of pride. But it was awful. You didn't want to show weakness, so you'd have to go off on your own. Towards the end it was because of Ellen -- but nothing would have changed between us if I'd left the house.
West Dundee, Ill.: Why did you choose to advance time in years during the three month project, rather than staying in 1906 from the beginning to the end? Was everyone else, besides Kenny keeping Ellen, allowed to take a memento of their experience back to the 21st century with them?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Caroline: With the time sweep you learn about the Edwardian era. If we'd stayed in 1906 you wouldn't have gotten a sense of the rot setting in. You needed to end on the eve of WWI and we went in depth.
Kenny: I think people were allowed to take little things -- like toothbrushes. But people weren't allowed to take things.
Caroline: Very few rule books got left behind.
Kenny: I think I stole a glove -- maybe a bow-tie as well. Anything I could fit in my socks. I would've taken the screen if I could've.
Bend, Ore.: PBS advertised DVD or VHS copies of the show. Can we in America get copies of the British version?
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: It's not on DVD, I don't think.
Caroline: It's not.
Kenny: It's not the same anyway.
Caroline: I omitted some outtakes to be put on the DVD.
Kenny: Antonia kissing Rob is on the DVD. It's horrible to watch.
Chicago, Ill.: What uniquely Edwardian lesson did you learn which has been valuable to you since your "return" to the 21st century? Please detail.
Kenny Skelton and Caroline Ross Pirie: Kenny: Stand up for yourself. Don't let anybody beat you down and keep going and in the end you'll win and you can have your vengeance.
Caroline: I thought one of the things I found interesting was that manners weren't necessarily a negative thing -- giving people space. Manners allow you to acknowledge another person in a way that we don't anymore. I think it shows that formal societies don't work. Hierarchical societies -- there's a better way. I thought that people -- that you'd be better off living below stairs, because I was always touched by how everybody pulled together. There was a real sense of community. That's what I felt. Is that true Ken?
Caroline: Whereas upstairs there were more people who were self important. There was more happiness downstairs. I thought that the way people dressed was wonderful. They all looked great in those clothes. People enjoyed dressing and there was elegance and the clothes showed off the human form. It's a shame that we slouch around now. We've lost the sense -- it's about form, a celebration of the way we're made.
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