This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
September 3, 2020
Someone has hit the rewind button on my television, all the way back to the 1990s. The infamous home renovation show that birthed an entire genre is set to return to British screens – and I honestly cannot wait.
The name of this game is Changing Rooms, and it was an accidental masterpiece. I believe it was adapted here after it became wildly popular back home (and was the inspiration for Trading Spaces), but I don’t know if the American crew was quite as oblivious to its own insanity.
This was the early days of the “modern” home renovation show, long before designers were given buckets full of cash to spend and actual craftsmen to help. The genre was brand new and had yet to be perfected, but that’s what made it so good.
The premise was simple: two couples appeared in each episode, always either friends or neighbors. Each pair would choose a room in their house and give the other free rein to redecorate it.
The idea was that the couples knew each other well enough to create the perfect design for their friends’ tastes. I think you can already imagine how that went.
The second catch – which I don’t think anyone even considered at the time – was that the couples had to do the work themselves, and they weren’t given much money to do it. They had the “assistance” of a professional interior designer, but that’s about it.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, if you’re the person who had to live in that new room – the designers were not short on ideas or shy about completely taking over the project.
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was my favorite. Imagine the sort of 18th century dandy you would see strolling the streets in an adaption of an Oscar Wilde novel and your mental image will be spot on.
He was not and is still not known for subtle designs. The brighter the colors and the more imaginative the pattern, the happier a Laurence is going to be.
Laurence, to provide some context, recently turned down the opportunity to decorate Frogmore Cottage on behalf of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Not because he has anything against them, but because their taste is reserved and he would be required to use too much beige paint.
Then there was Anna Ryder-Richardson. It turned out long after the show was cancelled that her true goal in life was to own a zoo, and she was prepared to star in any old reality show to do it.
Manor House Wildlife Park turned out to be in need of a bigger renovation than any room she’d been faced with so far, but she didn’t do too badly…except for the bit where she got fined a hundred grand for health and safety violations.
With the help of these designers, and one bloke with a tool kit known as Handy Andy, ordinary folk leading city lives that rarely involved an electric drill were tasked with completing an entire renovation without spending more coins than they could fit in the pocket of their jeans.
The results were nothing less than spectacular, from “statement” walls in hideous 1960s patterns to cheap-as-chips versions of actual décor (such as the “Roman statues” glued to the end of a bed in an effort to make it a four-poster, which turned out to be paper cutouts attached to MDF).
Designer wants a square tile pattern on the flooring? We can’t afford vinyl tiles, so we’ll just paint the floor black and stick duct tape to it in a grid.
Decided you want to go with the theme of “circles” for some unfathomable reason? Paint a few on the wall and we’ll buy some blow-up pool rings to stick in the corner as ornaments.
One designer decided to make an “artsy” living room with a coffee table made from paving slabs and a curved sofa out of unfinished MDF and white cushions. Oh and random rainbow stripes all over the wall.
Sometimes this went well, if the two couples were equally devoid of taste and thought the results of this madness were wonderful. Sometimes, they cried (and we would have cried with them if we hadn’t been snorting with laughter).
Sometimes, even the designers were embarrassed by the results, such as when Anna decided it would be a fabulous idea to frame French undergarments and place them all around the room. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for this choice, and she might have had a better reaction if the occupant hadn’t been the mother of young children.
Sometimes, things were doomed to go badly from the start, such as in the case of a room designed by Laurence that was covered from ceiling to floor in animal prints. Unlike Laurence, the family actively detested animal prints. Their neighbor, it turned out, knew this when he made the suggestion.
And then there’s one of the most famous episodes of any television show made in Britain.
Designer Linda Barker was asked to create a display for a woman’s prize collection of antique teapots. It was a priceless collection and extremely meaningful to her.
Linda decided the best way to do this would be to create free floating shelves in the middle of the room, hanging MDF (yes, as you may have figured out by now, almost everything was made of MDF) shelves from string. The lady’s friends didn’t want to do this, but as usual they were overruled.
Please recall at this point that the materials being used were cheap, the designers weren’t that great at carrying out their own designs, and they only had one handyman between them to do the heavy lifting.
They put up too many shelves for the teapots, but Linda didn’t think that was a problem – they could just use the bottom one for books. As you, my more practically thinking neighbor, have no doubt instantly realized, books are too heavy for a shelf that’s held up by a piece of string. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the shelves came tumbling down and the entire collection was destroyed.
If all of this sounds like car-crash television, that’s because it absolutely was. Which is why I am so pleased to hear it’s getting a reboot, because if you’re in need of a little escapism after a difficult day, who needs high fantasy when you can wander into the minds of the world’s most clueless designers?