A television reality show following a Swiss family’s attempts to live as 19th-century peasants has proved to be this summer’s surprise ratings success.
“Life in Gotthelf’s Time” may be short on drama and titillation but that hasn’t stopped up to half a million viewers tuning in for their regular fix of life on a farm.
Unlike other reality shows there’s no sex in the hot tub. In fact the main talking points so far have been the family dog running away, a tick bite on the father’s leg and the slaughter of a chicken.
Cameras film the family as they do the household chores, be it milking the cows or feeding the three woolly pigs, and every evening a selection of the day’s best images is broadcast to an eager audience.
“Schweiz Aktuell”, a news programme in Swiss-German dialect, can hardly believe its luck. The show is one of the best-rated programmes in German-speaking Switzerland, and the only one among its top ten that isn’t news related.
The concept is loosely based on the work of Jeremias Gotthelf, one of Switzerland’s best-known German-language authors, whose realistic take on the harsh world of alpine peasantry ran counter to the romantic image prevalent at the time.
“Gotthelf’s literature was probably the first in the German-speaking world to show farm life as it really was,” Hans Peter Treichler, a historical consultant for the programme, told swissinfo.
The stars of the show are the Zuppigers, a family of five from canton St Gallen, who have moved into a 200-year-old farmhouse for three weeks on the hills above Eggiwil in the Emmental region.
They were handpicked from more than 100 candidates but have yet to set pulses racing.
“We weren’t looking for a family with problems. What we were interested in was showing daily life as in Gotthelf’s time,” said Thomas Schaeppi, one of the programme’s producers.
Arranging an interview with the Zuppigers is only marginally less difficult than meeting royalty.
The producers have tried to cut their contact with the outside world to a minimum, a task made all the harder by public and media interest.
Encouraged by recent sunny weather, hundreds of people have made their way to the road leading up to the farm, only to find their path barred.
Apparently before access was restricted, some uninvited guests walked into the kitchen and started poking around.
This public interest is matched by the media scrutiny. The leading tabloid “Blick” even asked some visitors what they thought of the chicken’s demise.
As a result, media officers carefully vet visiting journalists – including swissinfo – before they are allowed to meet the Zuppigers.
Like the rest of the family, Josef Zuppiger looks the part, with his scruffy beard, bare feet and an outfit certified by the Ballenberg historical museum to be authentic down to the last button.
A carpenter by trade, Josef doesn’t look half as exhausted as he should be by the long working days on the farm.
In fact, the family has adapted extremely well to their temporary home, and a crash course in 19th-century farming has seen them overcome most problems.
“It’s been very positive for us because the children have to do their share as well, so it’s brought us all closer together,” said Josef.
The hardest thing has been leaving the trappings of modern life behind. The house has no electricity or running water and the toilet is a pit in the garden.
The three children have complained about having to leave their video games and bikes behind. For Josef, the lack of electricity has been the biggest problem.
“We are still not used to spending so much time in the dark,” he said. “Even with petrol lamps, there’s not enough light to really do anything.”
Josef Zuppiger says that living with the cameras day in, day out has not been a problem, adding that the family got used to them quickly.
But he admits that with so many people hanging around the farm, it can sometimes be like living in a fishbowl.
Despite his enthusiasm, the father-of-three isn’t sure whether he would sign up for a longer stint or another show. He also admits the experience is unlikely to change his life radically.
“We will still have the same lifestyle when we go home,” he told swissinfo. “But we might think twice now about how much water or electricity we use.”
The runaway success story has not escaped criticism: some Gotthelf specialists have questioned the historical accuracy of the programme.
Fritz von Gunten, who is overseeing this year's commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the writer’s death, has even accused programme producers of abusing Gotthelf's legacy.
The devil is apparently in the details. The historian believes, for example, that many of the objects used by the family are the wrong ones.
Gotthelf never lived in Eggiwil, as suggested by the programme, and according to von Gunten, the show presents the life of a peasant as idyllic.
But Treichler denies the charge: “The house is as close to what it would have been at the time, and we spent a lot of time making sure the details were right.”
Swiss television now has to decide if it wants to use the concept again, running it at a different time of the year and over a longer period.
swissinfo, Scott Capper
Jeremias Gotthelf was the pseudonym of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854).
Bitzius, who worked as pastor in the Emmental, took an active interest in the education and economic improvement of the rural population.
Many of his 38 volumes of prose were written in dialect.
Best known are “Ueli, the Farmhand” (1840) and “The Black Spider” (1842).
The farmhouse used for the programme was built in 1772.
The furniture and the clothes the family are using were supplied by the Ballenberg open-air museum, which has displays on rural life in Switzerland.
The “Pro Specia Rara” association supplied advice on the farm animals, such as the woolly pigs, and what vegetables should be planted in the garden.