Underpromising, vaguely defeatist, un-specific – what could be more Irish than Room to Improve?
I often feel like saluting during the intro credits of Room to
Improve (Sunday RTE 1). The theme music, to me, is the national anthem. The title underpromises and is vaguely defeatist, un-triumphalist and un-specific, like all the classic Irish political slogans (Lots Done, More to Do; Tiocfaidh ar La). And it gladdens my heart to see so many people donning the Irish national costume – a hard hat and a high viz jacket – to engage in the national pastime: building an extension. Didn’t the heroes of 1916 die so we could build extensions? Don’t check Wikipedia. The answer is “Yes.”
Each week, Dermot Bannon rolls into town like the Littlest Hobo or the Incredible Hulk (both analogues for Jesus) to help troubled families suffering from bungalow-dysmorphia. Their bungalows all look fine, but saying this to an Irish person is unpatriotic. We have a goddamn right to renovate our bungalows and if you try to stop us you’re a West Brit.
Dermot is often eerily reassuring and this also makes me feel patriotic. Perhaps it’s because he resembles the midpoint between Ryan Tubridy and Enda Kenny – if Tubridy was to transform into Kenny (which, for all we know, is something that happens). I also like that at one point, while chatting with a local shopkeeper, he happens to be purchasing, without saying why, a big bag of penny sweets like a large skinny baby. Why does he need all these penny sweets? It’s his dark secret and we’ll never know.
In this episode, Darragh Egan, Sarah Lovett and Darragh’s mother Mary, hope to turn the house Darragh’s late father built into two separate dwellings. This is potentially a case-study in internecine passive aggression made all the more potent by the presence of Dermot as an ersatz border commission. The family explains what they want. They wish to share the same living space but not interact. “We want to live together, and separately.”
Dermot listens carefully then builds what he always builds: a tasteful scale model of an aircraft hangar with loads of windows. Think of as many windows as you can. Dermot wants to add more windows than that to every house he sees. The man is obsessed. His job he explains, is “bringing in space and bringing in light”, much like our lord. Yet, his grotesque window-filled chimeras resemble the reality bending worlds of MC Escher or HP Lovecraft or Renua. Sometimes when he’s done, I can’t look at the TV without screaming.
There are two types of music on the programme. There’s the jaunty arpegiatted glockenspiel music, suggesting the family have no complaints or are, at least, not yet clinically depressed. And then there are the discordant synth tones suggesting the family have views of their own and that Bannon is displeased. His brow darkens and he stuffs his maw with penny sweets.
He can be chilling. One of his collaborators talks of him as though he’s a trickster character from Irish folklore. “Be wise to Dermot and his tactics,” she says (really), squinting at the fire and jabbing her clay pipe in our direction (not really).
Sometimes the family resist Dermot’s attempts to mould their lives according to his mad whims. At one point, Mary walks around the stripped-out shell of the house her husband built. “I hate seeing the place torn apart,” she says sadly. The word “demolish” is literally written in pencil on one of the walls. The editor missed a trick here by not having Dermot laughing maniacally on the audio track. Mary’s daughter-in-law is less concerned. “I never lived in this home. I don’t have sentimental feelings about it,” she says.
She has her own problems. A conversation about why Sarah doesn’t want to get handle-less presses for the kitchen segues into Sarah diagnosing herself with OCD and concludes with Dermot saying: “No-one is saying you’re a bad mother.” It’s an extreme escalation. But clearly he’s thinking: “If she doesn’t get these handle-less presses I’m calling social services.”
The project finishes. The builder is at his wit’s end. The family are teetering over budget and now own a tasteful scale-model of an aircraft hangar with loads of windows. Dermot’s work is done and the music from
The Littlest Hobo starts to fade up. Sarah tries to take some credit for an idea. “We’ll take joint credit,” says Dermot through gritted teeth, before ascending to refurbish his father’s house, which is heaven.
Yes, Room to Improve is the apotheosis of the dreams of 1916. The new, slightly triumphalist, Liam Neeson-narrated documentary about the rising, 1916 (Wednesday, RTE 1), also resembles the first half of an aspirational homeland-improvement programme – the bit where they start knocking everything down.
“I wonder what they’ll build in those ruins?” I ask, as the rousing strings sweep me out the door, gun in hand, towards the GPO. An underwhelming conservatory, no doubt, that wallows in disappointment, leaks in winter and has a good room for the priest. Luckily in the next episode Neeson leaves the microphone to go and sort everything out (wait, am I thinking of Michael Collins? Or possibly Taken 2?).