Girls Gone Proper

Ladette to Lady, a British experiment in refinement.

British reality show Ladette to Lady

There’s no way that Ladette to Lady, an engrossing English reality show imported by the Sundance Channel (Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET; reruns all week) could be remade in the U.S.A. For starters, our own “ladettes”—crude young women ceaselessly thirsting for lager and trouble—have already been funneled into the Girls Gone Wild video series. And, even so, in England, bad girls seem to inspire a broader moral panic. As this show’s terrific narrator, Lucy Briers, tells us, “They’re in danger of becoming a permanent feature of modern life.”

Ladette to Lady gathers “10 of Britain’s most notorious ladettes” at a fat manse in the country for a five-week crash course in high society—how to talk, how to walk, how to dress a lobster. (In the manner of better schools everywhere, ladettes who don’t shape up are not expelled but “asked to leave.”) Such an idea could only be executed so crisply in a culture with an ancient and transparent class system. If this show were produced on home turf, it would instantly alienate a popular audience and require play-by-play analysis by Tom Wolfe, with color commentary from Babe Paley.

Ladette to Lady needs only Briers’ BBC-perfect elocution and a wicked script that may put you in mind of a nature documentary. In tonight’s debut episode, when the aspirants trade in their jeans and tees for A-line skirts and twin sets, she observes, “the uniform soon has a strangely calming effect.” Later, as a treat, the principal allows them an evening at the local pub. “It’s a decision which betrays a remarkable ignorance of her charges,” says Briers.

The instructors range from a plump, blunt matron to an arch and reedy schoolmarm. How high are their standards? “Remorselessly high,” says Briers. What’s going to happen to the ladettes? “They’re going to be crushed!” says the matron. “Absolutely crushed!” What are the authorities up against? One pupil, Jemma, caused an international incident after flashing her breasts while on vacation in Greece. Another, Hayley, claims to be “common as muck,” if I’m reading her accent right. At a wine-tasting class, Clare, whose parents are “desperate for her binge-drinking and promiscuity to end,” samples and swallows each of the 33 wines. The ladettes are mercurial, at one moment dutifully scribbling notes on flower arrangement only to be found promising elaborate violence against superiors at the next. Notably, they are unfailingly kind to one another. When was that last said of an American reality competition?

Of course, this is a 19th-century plot: The lessons in soufflé-baking and deportment, like the ritual burning of Jessica’s electric-blue hair extension, are geared to make the students more marriageable. Throughout the series, there is phalanx of “eligible bachelors” who file into cocktail parties and country-house weekends. You can smell their hair gel through the screen, and their presence is the first hint that what initially looks like a light exercise in self-improvement might begin to seem ambiguous or even a bit sinister. The second hint comes in the third episode, when, in sewing class, the women start to make themselves corsets. Cinching, unforgiving, deforming—that’s how it’s done in England. God save the queen.