overthinking the idiot box

June 13, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
The Property Deal Porn Problem
by C.J. Quinn

This country has a problem, and someone needs to stage an intervention, quick. Y'see, here on our small island these days, we are all perched precariously atop a monstrous, bloated property bubble, muttering hopelessly and obsessively "Something's got to give," all too aware that as a nation we have a) too many people, b) not enough houses, c) lots and lots of people making buckets of money on the buy-to-let market, and d) thus loads and loads of people who are totally priced out of the housing market.

How anyone in their 20s ever manages to get a foot on the property ladder, particularly in London, is a constantly
recurring topic of sad, haunted bar talk among my peers.
How anyone in their 20s ever manages to get a foot on the property ladder, particularly in London, is a constantly recurring topic of sad, haunted bar talk among my peers. We all know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who has managed it — old friends of mine managed to buy a lovely townhouse by dint of living in York, where the property market is slightly less mental. Another pair of old uni mates bought their flat in north London via family connections — an aunt who wanted to move and avoid getting caught up in a massive property chain sold to them at a favorable price. Those of us without the options of relocating or exploiting family connections, caught up in the craziness of the London rentals market, can only stare with envy at these fortunate few as they fly off to Ikea to feather their nests. It's not just London, either — the proportion of towns in the UK where someone on a nurse's salary is priced out of the housing market altogether has recently risen to 93%. Is it me, or is that just, well, kind of insane?

Caught in the grip of property bubble mania, then, the nation has developed a secondary sickness — an unhealthy addiction to what I would call property-deal porn. If one watches porn to satisfy the itch when sex is unavailable, property-deal porn is what one watches when one longs to buy and sell but has no reasonable prospect of ever being able to do so. The home-makeover show craze, and the more recent home-cleaning show craze, are merely sub-sections of the genre — if you can't sell it, at least you can make it look like a new house with a little feng-shui, a few mirrors and a lot of elbow grease, right? Right?

Just to be clear, property-deal porn isn't hot/crazy house porn along the lines of MTV's Cribs: What we want is more the thrill of the chase, the nail-biting tension of the sealed bid on the table and the wait for the seller's agent to call back, the highs of finding the perfect ruined barn to renovate in the south of France, and the lows of realizing one's relocation budget doesn't stretch to dealing with infestations of French rats or foreign red tape. These shows aren't just for middle-aged mums either — they're hot with twentysomethings like, well me, and my friends, who text me obsessively during them to comment on everything from the presenter's poor fashion choices to the beauty of a house's bathroom fittings. This just isn't normal or right, is it?

Just to illustrate the scale of the property-deal porn problem, here's what I could have watched (only on the five main terrestrial channels in five days, mind) recently to satisfy my deep, dark desire to nose into other people's property deals:

Monday: Not a big night for house shows, this. The nearest I can get appears to be a show about urban gardening on BBC2. Le sigh. Denied!

Tuesday: Ah, much better. At 8 p.m. on Channel 4, The Property Chain beckons. "Kirstie Allsop traces the links in a Brighton and Hove housing chain, featuring a couple desperate to move into a new apartment." Splendidly, this show is hosted by a woman who first made her name co-hosting another property show, Location, Location, in which she and her sidekick Phil Spencer find houses for people who are desperate first-time buyers (this show in turn spawned Relocation, Relocation, in which Phil and Kirstie ride to the aid of people wanting to move house, and Relocation Revisited, a great cheap schedule-filler for Channel 4 in which Kirstie goes back a year later to see how their movers have got on, liberally interspersed with clips from the original episode).

Wednesday: If it's 8 p.m. on Channel 4, it must be time for a property show. And yes, it's the ubiquitous Kirstie (once wonderfully described as "half-woman, half-Care Bear," I might add), on Relocation, Relocation. What a shocker! "Kirstie Allsop and Phil Spencer help a couple who want to sell their flat in Twickenham to buy two homes." Well, screw them, sez I, because a flat in oh-so-tony Twickers means this couple must be sitting on a very tidy bit of capital, and oh, look, one home isn't enough, they need two. These people need help because ... um, why? I contemplate the amount of money I pour into the gaping maw of my landlord's bank account monthly, and my total lack of hope of ever getting on the bottom rung of the property ladder, and start gnawing my own hands off with rage.

Thursday: A slightly earlier property slot over on Channel 5, kicking off with Dream Holiday Homes at 7:15, hosted by the eternally orange and cheery Carol Smillie, cross-fertilizing the ever-popular holiday show with the property-deal porn show (and striking gold with Smillie as the host, since, in addition to Changing Rooms, she had a long-time gig on the BBC's Holiday Show, winsomely beaming from a different resort each week in between reports on different holiday possibilities by other E-list celebs).

Then yet another old-telly-for-new opportunity with House Doctor: Ann's Top 10 ("Ann Maurice recalls a Wear Valley makeover"). House Doctor itself is a genius cross-breed of Changing Rooms (or Trading Spaces, as Americans may know it) and Relocation, Relocation et al. The frightful, shouty American Ann Maurice (think a brassier, Californian Martha Stewart — same gimlet glare and iron fist within tasteful, upscale velvet glove) comes and visits people who have been trying to sell their homes for ages without success, and in no short order lets them know that no one wants to buy their house because, frankly, it's fugly. She then puts all their stuff in boxes, completely repaints and redecorates their house, gives it a spritz of room fragrance and hey presto, house sold.

Special bonus: Ann Maurice comes complete with the feyest, gayest "straight" man in British TV, a camp sidekick who is the fluffy marshmallow to her steel rapier. This is essentially panto television — Ann Maurice is the evil witch, and Alastair is the campy principal boy. The best part of House Doctor is the bit where you see prospective buyers being "secretly" filmed viewing the house in its fugly "before" state, and talking tremendous amounts of trash about it, to the visible woe of the luckless seller, and then being filmed again, having been enticed back, after the makeover and going into raptures about Ann Maurice's changes.

Friday: Again on Five, we have a veritable Property-Showpalooza, while the other four channels are busy showing the traditional Friday night lineup of comedy shows and sitcoms. At 7:30, Housebusters, which takes a pleasingly mad spin on the home-makeover-to-sell by sending in "psychic detectives" to fix the feng-shui, geopathic stress (geo-who-in-the-what-now?) and psychic phenomena of a house that's stuck on the market; at 8, the frightful Ann Maurice yet again with House Doctor: The A-Z of Design ("Tips based on the letters M, N and O", my TV Guide helpfully adds, leaving me none the wiser about what on earth to expect), and at 8:30, in a charming gardening-show twist, Nice House, Shame About The Garden (oooh, "a neglected garden in Clapham", really?), which does exactly what it says on the tin.

This is only on terrestrial, mind, and only in one week. If I only had cable and got UKStyle, for instance, I could add in plenty more property-deal porn shows, many of which first aired on the terrestrial channels: Trading Up (gay interior design duo Justin and Colin reveal how to increase the value of your home by decorating it right); the clumsily named Put Your Money Where Your House Is; the self-explanatory Buying Abroad; Grand Designs the hour-long, thinking person's property show, which sees a Cambridge art and architecture graduate following people aiming to design and build their dream home; Hard Sell, which is basically House Doctor with a 24-hour time limit; Home Wasn't Built In A Day (another annoying victory of pun over content, as this show aims to prove that a home can be built in a day rather than bought, assuming you are one of the Three Little Pigs and don't mind, say, living in a cottage made of straw bales — no, really); Homes Under The Hammer, which looks at buying your dream home via a property auction; The Florida House (how to be that annoying person who sells up on a whim and moves to sunnier climes); Our Home; Our House; Perfect Properties; Superhomes; The Million Pound Property Experiment; To Buy or Not To Buy (oh God, death by property pun), which lets people who are the property-market equivalent of That Man Who Can't Commit "test-drive" houses, and Trading Up.

If I had UKStyle on my telly I would probably never leave the house again, because I would be stuck in front of the goggle box, mesmerized by the impossible dream of someday owning my own lovely little bijou terraced house in Canterbury or former shepherd's croft in the Scottish Highlands.
Just listing all those shows makes me feel like someone's battered me around the head with an estate agent's bulging briefcase full of cash, but the sad truth is if I had UKStyle on my telly I would probably never leave the house again, because I would be stuck in front of the goggle box, mesmerized by the impossible dream of someday owning my own lovely little bijou terraced house in Canterbury or former shepherd's croft in the Scottish Highlands. I am as prone as the next person to falling into reveries in front of estate agents' windows, neglecting the fact that in London, on my miserable salary, I couldn't even buy a cardboard box under a railway bridge.

If the property bubble eventually deflates (any day now, the papers keep promising me, aaaaany day now), will the property-deal porn disappear from our screens? I doubt it, somehow. As previously noted here, to a Brit, one's home is one's castle, and we like our privacy — however, the flipside of valuing privacy is a love of gossip. We're a nation of net-curtain twitchers — we all want to peek at what the neighbors are up to, we just don't want to be caught doing it (or find out that they're doing it to us). Property-deal porn lifts the net curtains for us, and lets us peek into the finances of complete strangers too; it's as if people suddenly started being truthful at suburban dinner parties while swapping their stories about searching for the perfect three-bedroom house with room for extension in the catchment area of the right state school. Perhaps our love of it isn't a sickness at all, but a kind of therapy, a national safety-valve on the property mania-fuelled pressure cooker of the national consciousness. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and pour some wine, eat far too many crisps and sigh wistfully over stylish little Brighton and Hove love nests.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 6.