Prop­erty deals and home ren­o­va­tion do not sug­gest must- see television, but is hooked by the mix­ture of psy­chol­ogy, en­ter­tain­ment, re­li­gion and eye candy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Graeme Blun­dell

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

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