Jane Austin may have painted a romantic picture of life in Regency England, but it wasn't all bursting breeches and heaving bosoms.

Steve Pratt reports on how an experiment on l,iving in the 1800s turned into a story of smashed plates and class divides.

THIS was the moment when the play-acting turned to hostility as the fun and games of the Regency House Party took a dramatic turn. Chaperone Mrs Rosemary Enright decided she'd had all she could take from hostess Mrs Rogers and her attitude towards the younger, less fortunate guests staying at Kentchurch Court.

"I lost my rag with her," confesses Mrs Enright. "I hurled a plate into the fireplace, having unburdened myself of a few thoughts, and stormed out of the room, closely followed by my esteemed friend Lady Devenport."

The pages of Jane Austen's novel never contained such violent conflict, but then her characters didn't have TV cameras following their every move and eavesdropping on their every word.

Romantic fiction writer Rosemary Enright and Elizabeth, Lady Devenport, were among those who spent nine weeks last summer cooped up in a country house recreating a Regency house party of the early 1800s.

The eight-part series follows the success of C4's previous time travel reality show The Edwardian Country House. Once again, participants were expected to live the life of a bygone age in intimate detail, from costumes and social etiquette to the lack of toilets and bathrooms.

Six aspiring Mr Darcys and six Miss Bennets assembled under the watchful eye of their chaperones at the 18th century stately home in Herefordshire of bachelor boy host Chris Gorell Barnes and hostess Fiona Rogers.

"It was an adventure, a sort of mad holiday in costume. Like being on a cruise ship without any ports of call," recalls Mrs Enright, from Harrogate.

TWICE married and twice divorced, she was a commissioned officer in the Women's Royal Army Corps, went into advertising when she became a single mother in her 30s, published four novels in her 40s, and has now completed a two-year art course in her 50s.

She was chaperone to Miss Hayley Conick, one of the lowest in the pecking order at the house party, a sort of Regency Blind Date.

Lady Devenport, who lives in Northumbria, was chaperone to the richest woman in the party, Miss Victoria Hopkins. In real life, she's a Lady by marriage to a peer of the realm. They're now separated, and she raised her two daughters single-handedly.

She works with deprived young people from the Newcastle area, rides her horse every day, plays cards, and was a model in her youth.

She applied to join the house party following an appeal in a Sunday newspaper for older people to be chaperones. "I knew very little about the period but had obviously read Jane Austen and books of that time," she says. "I'm quite keen on history but not the nitty-gritty details. I didn't know it would be such a heavy duty job."

Mrs Enright applied after her sister pointed out the ad. "She said, 'this is just up your street'. I've been a fan since schooldays of Jane Austen and a self-appointed explorer of the period," she says.

"I wrote the makers an essay in the style of an 18th century pamphleteer and thought no more about it. A few weeks later they rang and asked me to come in for a screen test."

For nine weeks, they and the rest of the "cast" had to totally immerse themselves in the Regency period. None of it was scripted. Guests were told what activities were in store and then had to live them out.

"You were given information at breakfast as to what was going on that day, and had to deal with it - and try not to swear too much," says Lady Devenport.

"It was a case of playing it by ear. Chaperones were shadowy figures in the background, stopping the girls getting into trouble. We were very much the wallflowers at the dance, sat there looking like a fat tub of lard. We all got along together quite well, and had quite a bit of fun together."

There was no changing into jeans or modern clothes at any time. The Regency outfits, she says, were beautifully made even if some made her "look like a very old baby". She particularly liked her riding outfit "because I do ride and love to ride side-saddle".

Less pleasing to both women were the sanitary arrangements. There were chamber pots instead of flush toilets, and guests were allowed only one bath a week.

"The worst bit for me was the lack of bathrooms. I smelt like a badger the entire time," says Lady Devenport.

Mrs Enright never thought the health and safety people would allow partipants to live without proper toilets. But they did. "That was the one thing I hadn't really anticipated, and it was made more fun because I was sharing a room with Hayley," she says. "Lizzie went around saying, 'I smell like a badger'. I thought, 'I never smell' but I did."

The hardest thing for her was the manner of hostess Mrs Rogers. She didn't like it one little bit. "She was desperately keen on the status thing," she explains.

"If you invite a group of people to your house, you know their fortunes and background are varied but assume them all to be gentlemen and women.

'YOU will preserve your private thoughts, and not demonstrate how lowly people are. She did that time and time again, particularly to the young people. They hadn't met this kind of thing and were appalled.

"Sadly, I provided quite a lot of the conflict and lost my rag. I warned the production team, but they weren't around when I hurled the plate."

Lady Devonport didn't come to blows with anyone, although did find romance with younger cleric Mark Foxsmith. She is coy about their relationship, saying: "It's all part of life's rich pattern."

She went back to live in Regency times with an open mind, finding the experience "quite magical" in a way.

"I had a little bit of licence to be more lenient because your character is given a personality like your own, so I had a title. I got the best bedroom. It was amazing how much they took notice of a title in those days," she says.

Exactly what the guests got up to - and some of it would make Jane Austen blush - will be seen over the next eight weeks and is chronicled in the book accompanying the series.

Author Mrs Enright won't be contributing to the words, as contracts bar participants from writing about their experience for two years. But she thinks there are things that could be done with the material and would be fun to do.

Would she do it again, and enter a time tunnel to a different age? "I think I might," she says. "It was great fun. I would do it again in much the same spirit as one goes back to Greece."

* Regency House Party begins on C4 tomorrow at 9.05pm. The book accompanying the series is published by Time Warner Books, price £18.99.