Think Jane Austen meets the "Dating Game" and you've got the idea of PBS's "Regency House Party," said Jody Sheff, executive producer.
"It's a reality-show dating game -- but the reality is 1811," she said.
And it's all about manners, money and marriage as 21st-century people take on the roles of eligible bachelors, single ladies and their chaperons at a 19th-century house party at Kentchurch Court in England.
Participants were chosen from more than 30,000 applicants, and the single men and women were assigned different roles for the party, with different combinations of social standing and fortune.
For instance, the most fortunate Mr. Gorell Barnes is assigned to be master of the house and host of the party. Countess Larushka Ivan-Zadeh Griaznov is named the highest-ranking female guest socially -- but she conceals the fact that she is of very little means.
Besides the five single men and five single women at the house party, there also are four chaperons who are responsible for maintaining propriety and arranging the best matches for their charges. If they succeed in brokering a suitable match, they may benefit financially.
"In the Regency, romance was a slow dance played out with courtesy and reverence, but finding the right mate was not just about falling in love. Marriage was business, a chance to achieve power, wealth and status. Every move was scrutinized by matchmakers and chaperons," the program says.
Francesca Martin, who was assigned to the role of lady's companion -- essentially an unpaid servant -- said she was open to the idea of a real romance as the show unfolded.
"If I met somebody, whatever happened, happened," she said. Some of the participants really were looking for a serious partner, she said, while others were more interested in history and trying to experience the life of the 1811-1820 Regency period.
One surprise, she said, was how important status was in life of those times. "Before I went to the house, I genuinely thought it wouldn't make a difference," she said. "I couldn't believe how friendships, relationships -- everything was dictated by status."
The series was filmed in England for nine weeks in the summer of 2003 and aired on British television last spring. U.S. viewers will see a shorter version -- four 90-minute episodes -- that will air on PBS on consecutive Wednesdays beginning this week.
That summer was incredibly hot, said Elizabeth Devonport, who participated as a chaperon. "I had to wear every day, woolen stockings, a petticoat, then a corset, then a chemise, then a tight dress, and always gloves and a hat outdoors . . . no wonder tempers frayed!"
The costumes were authentic, producer Sheff said, as were the house and its furnishings, the food and various events.
"Everything that happens in the house has historical precedence," Sheff said.
There were about 40 people who participated as servants to keep the house running as it would have during the Regency period, she said, but the series focuses on the houseguests and the servants aren't a major part of the show. Viewers see the meals as they would have been served, but they don't see the actual cooking.
"Regency House Party" is the latest in the "House" hands-on history programs following in the tradition of "1900 House," "Manor House," and "Colonial House," Sheff said, "but adding 'party' to the title is a clue that no one is going to . . . get their hands dirty."
The houseguests learned many of the important skills of the time. Men spent time on horseback riding and physical training while the women studied the intricacies of sending subtle signals with the fans they carried. The women saw the greatest differences between then and now.
"And cleavage is really important. It's the coin of the realm for the ladies, while it's big muscles for the men," Sheff said.
Speakers occasionally visit the estate and the houseguests are exposed to 19th-century technology, medicine and phrenology, as well as other aspects of Regency life.
Mark Fox-Smith, who was one of the bachelors, personally experienced leeching, which didn't hurt at all, he said.
He also learned a lot about etiquette, such as who goes before whom, he said. Etiquette meant a great deal to "people who have so much money, they don't know what to do with their time. . . . There were more and more elaborate rituals to set themselves apart from the peasants."
On the other hand, Martin saw the free time as a chance to draw and write and do nice things for others -- small gestures such as leaving flowers on someone's bed.
Martin, Devonport and Fox-Smith all enjoyed the beautiful setting and said the experience was one they wouldn't hesitate to repeat.
A note to romantics and "Dating Game" fans: It wasn't what anyone expected -- but an ongoing relationship did develop between two of the show's participants.
On Nov. 10 at 1 p.m., Elizabeth Devonport and Mark Fox-Smith will be online to chat about looking for love in Regency England. Visit washingtonpost.com/liveonline
Regency House Party
Wednesday at 9 p.m. on MPT, 10 p.m. on WETA