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I think we can learn a lot from the Victorians; Alistair McGowan finds himself shovelling manure as he heads to the Black Country for the BBC's 24 Hours In The Past. Roz Laws reports.

Byline: Roz Laws

ALISTAIR MCGOWAN wanted to live as a Victorian so he could ride a penny farthing bicycle.

Instead, the impressionist found himself in the Black Country shovelling horse manure and collecting human waste.

His experiences in the BBC reality show 24 Hours In The Past also included sorting through piles of rotting vegetables and old bones, using (and emptying) an outside toilet and sleeping on the floor in a tiny kitchen.

The first episode of the BBC1 series, broadcast on April 28, was filmed at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, even though its name is never mentioned.

The show's presenter, Fi Glover, merely says: "We've created a living Victorian town."

Truckloads of manure were brought in and spread over the museum to make it authentically squalid.

24 Hours In The Past features six celebrities who agree to spend a day in each of four different Victorian scenarios.

They find out what daily life was like for Britain's poorest people, doing back-breaking jobs for hardly any money.

Alistair McGowan is joined by actress Zoe Lucker, former MP Ann Widdecombe, athlete Colin Jackson, presenter Miquita Oliver and actor Tyger Drew-Honey.

They are supervised by historian Ruth Goodman.

Before giving up their modern luxuries, Alistair, 49, said: "I love the Victorian way of life and I think we can learn a lot from Victorian society.

"So to go back in time and leave the modern world behind for a week is enticing. I actually can't wait."

He was feeling rather different halfway through the first day, though.

"I hoped I might be riding a penny farthing, which I've always wanted to do," said Alistair.

"But it's all dirt and hard work which doesn't give you any sense of satisfaction.

"I'm not happy about this."

Alistair, who grew up in Evesham, Worcestershire, begins the day by working as a dustman, saying: "I've never really done any manual labour. I do a lot of typing."

When asked to sort through horse manure to find valuable dog muck, used in tanning to soften leather, Footballers' Wives star Zoe says: "I thought he meant fake-tanning, making people brown by putting it on their faces."

Women were paid two-thirds of a man's wage, even if doing the same job.

So after hours of sieving through a hill of dirt to seek out bones, jewellery, buttons and rags, Colin and Alistair get paid 4p but Zoe only 3p.

They need all their wages to pay for a night's accommodation in a dirty two-roomed house with an outside toilet, inhabited by rats.

The landlord charges them 3p for the night and the men don't even get a bed, they have to sleep on the kitchen floor.

They pay 2p to the "knocker-upper" who wakes them at 6am by knocking on the window.

University of Birmingham graduate Ann, 67, doesn't go to the pub because "it will be very loud and very vulgar" but the rest go for a tipple before the men collect the "night soil".

"We are literally shovelling poo," says Outnumbered star Tyger. "It smells terrible."

The next day, they add hops to the night soil and ship it to the docks by barge to be taken to West Indies for use as fertiliser.

"I think I'm going to vomit," says Miquita, just before she does.

Ann says: "I think after this week I won't even take a bar of soap for granted again."

And they don't get a shower before going on to their next destination, experiencing life as servants to a rich family for the second episode.

The Black Country Living Museum is used to film crews, having served as a location for dramas like Peaky Blinders, Arthur and George and WPC 56.

But Laura Wakelin, director of communications, said: "This was like no other filming we've had.

"They literally turned our usually well-presented coal yard into a dump, complete with mountains of dirt, rotting vegetables and old bones.

"The manure was sent in by the truckload and spread everywhere.

"The smell certainly added to the authenticity of our Victorian street!

"Filming took place over a particularly wet weekend in October which didn't make it any easier for museum staff, who spent many an hour shovelling the huge amounts of horse manure off our cobbled street in time for opening to visitors."

24 Hours In The Past is screened on BBC1 on April 28 at 9pm.

Alistair McGowan far from amused at having to shovel muck in the Black Country for BBC's 24 Hours In The Past
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 23, 2015
Words:755
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