I’ve been watching Changing Rooms.
A whole internet of TV to choose from, and I choose Changing Rooms. Episodes back-to-back. In this hot weather, with the windows open, one imagines my neighbours thinking, “No, that can’t be…” as they catch snatches of Phil Burns’ 1 urgently upbeat theme tune tootling through the haze.
It’s strange revisiting a once-TV phenomenon like this. Something that came along in 1996, perkily changed lifestyle programming forever – and neighbours’ homes less permanently – then DIY’d a sudden death in 2004 and was never spoken of again.
The several or so episodes I watched were spread across the series’ lifespan, opening with decoupage in Woolton Village, Liverpool, and a cream and biscuit colour scheme from Graham Wynne. Decoupage. Graham Wynne. I’m certain no-one’s typed either phrase for 10 years.
Watching the show feels like attending a party where everyone’s there under sufferance, but keen to jolly things along. There’s a tinge of desperation to each exchange, as people who aren’t necessarily witty look for humour – “Ah! Mr Kane! How are you getting on with that fretwork?”/”I’ll give you fretwork in a minute, gal! ” And interjecting regularly are those shrill musical stings, as if anxiously shuffling guests from buffet to bar area.
I kept watching.
By the time I got to the 1998 episodes 2 we have the Changing Rooms leitmotif captured in the opening titles – Graham’s tart “oh you!” expression as he busily exits a room. There are other things going on too. Linda Barker brings out a big stencil, but insists it need not be naff; the show now aware of its own cliches. And there are same-sex couples joining in the fun but it’s never a thing, which is quietly impressive.
As I continue, a second generation of designers arrive. The Tank Girl-esque Laura McCree who’s desperate to ‘do’ the banter but can’t quite put it together. Oliver Heath unpacks technical drawings and scaffold poles and then there’s Michael Jewitt. I refuse to pop a grab of him onto the site, because I got a real thrill from not only realising that’s a name I’d comprehensively forgotten, but also a face too. Michael Jewitt, eh? Used to watch him on Wednesday nights. There’s also an evolution within the old guard. By 2002 Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had (PVC) trousered a more grown-up gig on BBC2 with Home Front: Inside Out, and it’s notable that here he begins to refer to his design ideas a little loftily as “the scheme”.
I actually think LLB has been ill-served by television, because he’s a natural and effortless educator. A Johnny Ball in a massive shirt. But it’s he who quickly sinks Changing Rooms when Carol Smiley exits in 2003.
Captured here is the moment the leak is sprung. It’s all about to happen in Conisborough on Changing Rooms…
It’s wrong, isn’t it? That level of self-awareness. Sure, you could argue it’s prescient – this we-know-we’re-a-bit-crap-really style of presentation has become the standard mode of address for some of the BBC’s more arch entertainment shows. But on Changing Rooms? You’ve got to be in the moment, not outside it, smirking. As a result, the feeling of urgency goes 3 and the programme brought down the (distressed in wax) shutters the following year.
We didn’t want our show trying to be clever. We wanted a clutch of good-hearted, resoundingly average folk coming together to make a nice thing within a spuriously prescribed time-frame. We wanted medium-density fun.