NEW VIEW ON REAL ESTATE
Property deals and home renovation do not suggest must- see television, but is hooked by the mixture of psychology, entertainment, religion and eye candy
IN the absence of almost anything vaguely interesting to watch on free- toair television, I’ve become obsessed with LifeStyle Channel’s prime- time property blitz, which showcases one of TV’s most unusual and fascinating archives of cultural memory. If you were watching TV in Britain during the past half- decade or so, you could only have believed the place was apocalyptically obsessed with reconstructing homes for profit. These shows are now being recycled by LifeStyle with furious alacrity.
Once they hook you with their brazen blend of psychology, entertainment and religion, they become as compelling in their very different way as the narrative ideas that have emerged from US crime TV in the same period.
British property expert Andrew Winter is the latest to join pay TV’s crusade to persuade us, too, that property is the stairway to heaven.
Winter’s take on the market is uncovering rat’s mazes of international housing horrors involving those hapless, greedy Brits in a new series of Channel 4’ s Selling Houses Abroad .
Winter steps in to assist, compellingly frank and often brutal in his assessments. And, of course, his critical appraisal is usually met with opposition, wherein lies the entertainment of much of the genre.
Propelled by Channel 4’ s then controller of features Ben Frow, the property blitz’s innovative shows such as Location, Location, Location and Property Ladder engulfed BBC2’ s so- called ‘‘ wall of leisure’’ after it had colonised the market with a swag of cookery programs.
They also eclipsed the popular instant- fix, cheap- budget type of show, defined by Changing Rooms in the 1990s, in which homes were transformed by medium- density fibreboard and Laurence Llewelyn- Bowen’s swirly curtains, which surely fell to bits six months later.
Before Frow, British TV seemed jammed with gastrotainment: almost every evening, in prime time, viewers tuned in and watched hosts in pinstripe oven mitts bustling about stainless- steel kitchens, brandishing whisks made of pre- soaked spaghetti ( no, I am not joking) or burrowing themselves elbow- deep in organic sheep’s carcasses. But Frow and producer Daisy Goodwin, responsible for shows such as Home Front , Property Ladder , How Clean Is Your House? and the brilliant Grand Designs , their credits spread across the ether like a map of ideas, turned TV watchers into a nation of self- obsessed would- be property developers whom nobody would sit next to at dinner parties.
Conservative columnists were outraged, accusing property TV of helping to suffocate more productive elements of the economy, sapping entrepreneurial energy, deflecting it from invention and wealth- creation to off- grid living, tripleheight glass atriums and buy- to- let marketing.
But the public loved the shows. And the presenters, all of them property professionals, represented a new breed of special TV star, supported by subdued sartorial and acting codes that signified, above all else, sincerity.
Property Ladder ’ s Sarah Beeny, the Location franchise’s Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer, and Grand Design ’ s Kevin McCloud, in particular, embodied a shared viewer fantasy, maintaining
cohesive cultural fictions to do with property and home ownership, and also the possibility of personal redemption though self- improvement.
The info- doc shows now pulsing around local cable are genuine hybrids, the lifestyle demonstration convention crossed with the cultural anthropology of cinema verite and the travel narrative, creating a different style of short movie for TV. While largely improvised and seemingly spontaneous, they are so aggressively authored, staged and edited that they are in fact representational dramas.
Frow once categorised the successful format in typical TV programmer’s jargon: ‘‘ You need a ‘ gotta- see title that punches above the schedules’, a ‘ jaw- dropping must- see opening sequence’ and a middle section ‘ that rewards the viewer for watching’ ’’. And a bit of fly- on- thewall property psychodrama helps, too, a tinge of Schadenfreude and some expert judgementalism to add drama.
The sexpots are Beeny, who’s as well known for her big bosoms and straining buttons as her advice about creating ‘‘ the wow factor’’ ( her favourite term), and Allsop, who has a head- girl bossiness and an extraordinary ability to walk through ploughed fields in stilettos under huge, cumbersome black coats.
These shows operate in a moral world where those who ignore advice are punished by fate and those who don’t are rewarded, or are supposed to be. Beeny says she has spent a lifetime in TV saying, ‘‘ I wouldn’t do that; I’d do this if I were you’’. Halfway through the series she believed she would be sacked because no one listened to her. Then someone suggested to her that might be the point of the show.
Certainly most episodes leave us ‘‘ Why didn’t they listen to Sarah?’’
McCloud’s Grand Designs even offers a kind of aspirational property evangelism as he follows his subject’s attempts to convert lighthouses on the coast or glass- roofed eco- houses in the forests. He provides a surefooted guide ( he loves putting on the gumboots and lifting a spade in the wet) to the process whereby self- builders attempt to construct their dream homes, their eventual triumph over hair- raising obstacles tantamount to religious conversion.
McCloud follows people’s dreams, usually with some scepticism about budgets and time frames, invariably gobsmacked by what they achieve, his eyes moist with wonder. We sit at home passing comment, questioning everything the home owners are doing, secretly thrilled when they fail. Even when they build an amazing chateau out of a transported shipping container, they still get the window coverings and sofas wrong, though. But this is not a show about pure profit, which sets it apart.
McCloud appreciates that houses are not stocks or bonds and understands that emotional as well as financial imperatives are at stake. Houses are the material backdrop to the narrative of our lives and he proselytises the notion that the personal investment involved in creating a home should be greater than the thought of financial potential.
Usually highly emotional at show’s end, he believes passionately that good design can change the way people think and feel. His winning mantra throughout is, ‘‘ But I wonder, will they be able to pull it off?’’
Mind you, the Brits have always obsessed over their homes. Today’s polished TV presenters would all surely agree with Oscar Wilde, who asserted that colour sense was more important in the development of an individual than any sense of right or wrong.
Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? ( Saturday, 2pm, Nine) is a Doris Day comedy set during the famous 1965 blackout in New York City, to which my answer would be: certainly not watching Rogue Trader ( Sunday, 11.30pm, Nine). Ewan McGregor plays the notorious London money dealer Nick Leeson, who squandered millions on the Singapore stock exchange in the 1990s and managed to break Barings Bank in London.
In James Dearden’s silly, admiring film, he’s portrayed as a daring, adventurous, unlucky young scallywag who made a few unfortunate calls and just happened to destroy the livelihoods of many innocent people.
We are meant to have some sympathy for him. And we shouldn’t.
Aspirational evangelism: Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs