Thursday, 19 February 2009

Bringing The House Down With Kevin McCloud

Grand Designs
Channel 4 - Wednesday 18th February, 9.00pm

The late-1990s were a faddish time for British television. Although in retrospect one can point to programmes that managed to avoid the subject of home (or garden) improvement, for a while it did seem pretty pervasive. In this crucible of dross was forged Grand Designs containing attractive elements of other shows but with the crucial twist of focusing on the construction of an entire house, not being interested in imposing artificial deadlines for the work, and following one person and (often) his family with emphatically no gimmickry.

More impressive still, the tone of the series was elevated by the inclusion of Kevin McCloud, a former designer who actually knew a thing or two about the subject. Witty, cautiously enthusiastic, sometimes philosophical, McCloud is such a television natural that they could give him free rein and just about any subject could be conveyed with intelligence and ease. His slight sense of detachment from the events of the builds they cover (though often ready to intervene in the form of second opinions or sceptical commentary) is refreshing in a world of Davina McCalls. Although never pleased when anything goes wrong, it cannot be said he is harrowed when events take a turn for the worse. In this respect there is something of Jerry Seinfeld about him and that vague preoccupation with chance embedded into Seinfeld has analogues here too.

In this episode we follow Richard and Sophie Hawkes. He is an architect by profession and from the start it is very clear that this is his big project. Any budding sympathy for Sophie as the long-suffering wife is immediately uprooted by the announcement that she works in the City of London (indeed her eventual redundancy towards the end of the build will later be regarded as a great boon on the basis that the tax free payout will offset the overspend). They are a pleasant, dynamic, and wealthy couple - though admittedly not wealthy to the usual extent that subjects of Grand Designs can be - presumably having met via some upper-middle class metropolitan dating website.

Richard's dream is to take a plot of land in the country, bought for the relative song of £53,000, which has an existing bungalow. This will be torn down and replaced with a building McCloud describes as exhibiting "avant-garde eco technology" which turns out to mean a series of box rooms over two floors, the centrepiece being a large "parabolic arch" which looks from the outside as if a giant wheel has been plunged into the earth by an angry yet apparently confused God. We're told, quite impressively, that the 26,000 hand-made clay tiles whose interweaving will construct this parabola (there is some detail on why this is a parabolic arch rather than just an arch which I had trouble following) thereby making the project an architectural first in Britain. At the planning stage McCloud observes and offers a few motivational comments such as how this is all "pretty wacky" and "counter-intuitive lunacy" which is a phrase I doubt anybody else currently broadcasting would even think to use.

As cedar beams and tiles begin to amass, it is revealed that Richard will take over project management responsibilities and his wife will draw on her fiscal nous to become the financial controller of the project. Her jolly-hockey-sticks enthusiasm over the fact that they will be destined to live in a cramped caravan for over a year is forced, but then it would be. Presumably with little else to do in the evening other than have sex with each other, we are soon informed that Sophie is pregnant. McCloud and Richard however are more excited by the development of the roof. To graphically illustrate his concerns with the plans, McCloud carves onto a clay tile "the roof had better stand up" though this is surely true of every building project he's been associated with, parabolic arch or not.

Without sounding too Dennis Norden it is only now that we segue into a commercial break. My usual dash to make tea was halted in its tracks by the new Co-op advert, one of epic length which shows various scenes throughout modern Britain with the suggestion that Co-op are underpinning everything as a sort-of fabric to our lives. All this was performed to Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind a travesty which still grates hours after the broadcast. I may have to avoid commercial television for the next six weeks.

Happily the programme resumes to a three foot high scale-model of the roof which Richard is constructing. When finished he invites a genuinely terrified McCloud to stand on it with him. Richard and McCloud embrace on top of the structure whilst a small crowd of people watch, clearly hoping the whole thing dramatically collapses and somebody breaks something. Whilst McCloud desperately tries to keep the balance of their collective weight even, Richard is cock-a-hoop. McCloud screams like a girl. After savouring the moment, McCloud gets off and, foreshadowing events to come, the little roof continues to work until the weight distribution is uneven and it then collapses. Richard does a better job than I would have done at being brave as some tiles jut into his ankle rather nastily. Perhaps because of this excitement, baby Oscar is born although we are not treated to any footage of the birth.

As the construction of the real roof begins (with an enthusiastic McCloud volunteering to test the first few tiles for strength by pushing them with all his might), we are given more details of the eco aspect of the architecture. This is hard to follow but the essential concept to grasp is that the house is "passive". Despite what must have been literally dozens of references to its passivity I am still none the wiser what it means although treble-glazed windows imported from Europe seemed critical. Indeed when the windows eventually turned up, Richard described their hesitant installation as "more nerve-wracking than child birth", although as has been demonstrated before, sympathy with Sophie is quickly shot when we are told the windows cost £43,000.

McCloud then delivers a piece to camera where he demonstrates the passivity of the house by covering a shoe box with wrapping-paper and is immediately upstaged by an almighty crash from the real house behind him. Wonderfully, they kept footage of what he did next which was to slowly amble over to the building to try and get a better look. It turns out that weight was distributed unevenly on the roof (the lessons of the earlier model not learnt) but "the important thing was that nobody was hurt" says Richard somewhat unconvincingly.

At this stage there is time for reflection on the more homely details. McCloud seems positively shocked when it's revealed the building cannot sustain a cat-flap (again, it's a passive house...) and is downright poleaxed when Richard proudly announces they won't be including a letter-box which inspires a McInroe style "seriously?!" from McCloud. Talk turns to the "airtight" nature of the house, where McCloud correctly observes in his commentary that if Richard doesn't get the ventilation right his family will suffocate. Of course, this forgets about the fact that there'll be plenty of air once the roof collapses on them.

We are treated to an early morning scene of Richard staring transfixed at his house from the window of their caravan. I am concerned for him that he may struggle to find meaning in his life after the build. Their child does not seem to dominate his thoughts and he seems like a man that will move onto a bigger obsession after this one. Like the architectural equivalent of Richard Branson. It is this sort of thing that leads to giant gherkins. Mind you, he is not the only one that's visibly awed. Now that the roof is finished, McCloud is allowed inside to see how work is progressing on the interior. McCloud actually goes around whispering about how "primal" it is.

Meanwhile the seasons amble by. December 2008 comes along and McCloud turns up again. I have to say that I for one do not remember it looking so picturesque but then again I have a lot of confidence in the structural soundness of my house, so perhaps I'm less inclined to live for the moment. We are then treated to shots of the "ceramic firmament" (or the floor to you and me), which is almost as intriguing as the roof. The conceit here is to use recycled glass and resin and anything else lying about at the local tip. Extreme close-ups of nails and paperclips follow, suspended in time (and resin), like the carriers of dinosaur DNA.

And in a flash we are brought right up-to-date, February 2009. As is the custom, McCloud visits the completed house for a guided tour. And you can't knock the Hawkes's for the job they've done - though I could have done without one of the windows being embossed with the word "Hawkes". The inside has something of a cavern about it, and despite all the windows it looked quite dark to me. Certainly there is ample space which, true to expensive design projects, is rarely encumbered by furniture. I have seen kitchens in Homebase showrooms which are more personalised. Indeed, the whole house is doubtless a bugger to clean, the offence caused by the merest hint of a stray Hello magazine or a leaning pot-plant magnified by the absence of almost anything else. This apparently also includes baby Oscar who was firmly absent from the viewing but whose presence must be a daily affront to the architectural splendour.

McCloud likes to examine the functional and is taken by the idea of a bath in the bedroom. Sophie describes how Richard sometimes gets wearied of talking to her whilst she's having a bath so she can now wallow in the tub, and he can lie in bed - a description of a moment of touching, day-to-day intimacy that you rarely see captured on television. No need to be sentimental though, since we are informed that complementing this loveliness is a series of sensors implanted all over the property which Cambridge University are using to "monitor the performance" of the house. I was, at this point, completely at sea and somehow this house, just by being passive, manages to generate sufficient energy such that Richard and Sophie can sell £1,800-worth back to the Grid on an annual basis.

In a Jerry Springer-style finish, McCloud always delivers a summing-up to camera. Unlike Springer, this is well-written, genuine, uplifting, and generous about the character of both the finished property and its designer, often praising their ambition and daring. In a personal project such as this, it's probably rare anyone thinks to say 'thank you' on behalf of architecture but in this instance the project is deemed "creative... risk-taking... ground-breaking... the efforts of its maker are heroic". Hopefully this little speech can be played back to himself by Richard in the future if he's ever having a bad day.

I really like Grand Designs. I will never design and build my own house and this programme gives me enough depth in an interesting subject without losing interest or focus. Kevin McCloud is an authentic and natural broadcaster, quietly witty, well-informed, and a natural observer. He engages with the subject and is not afraid to offer his own insights. The basic content of the show never changes but that is no bad thing. It is watchable, surprisingly well filmed, and entertaining. Long may it continue!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Not Going Out, But Must We Suffer This?

Not Going Out
BBC One - Friday 13th February, 9.30pm

Did you watch Not Going Out last night? No, of course not. You were out. And if you were in and watched this you wished you weren’t. Believe me.

Someone with scheduling authority obviously considers Lee Mack to be a very funny man, and has allowed him to script and star in his own sitcom effectively playing himself, an irritating yet faintly charming man with a small, complicated network of acquaintance who act as a foil to puncture his more grandiose schemes and romantic ambitions.

Series 3 has somehow still dug its claws into one of the best prime time television slots going (although 9.30pm Friday night is certainly not what it once was). This is surprising for several reasons, most obviously that it’s badly written tosh which would look amateurish if it was performed on the back of a GCSE Creative Writing course. What would have made for a lowlight on a particularly insipid Tuesday evening on BBC3 is vaulted to Friday night glory. The script is so leaden you could weep, marshalling set-ups and punchlines of such crushing inevitability and tedium that you feel the urge to destroy your most valuable possession simply to reassert mankind’s freewill. Everything about it feels rushed, as if the writers had given themselves a deadline of 24 hours to complete the project and instead of adrenaline-soaked brilliance we’re left with nervous half-hearted gags delivered with stilted awkwardness.

Yet at a deeper level, the main surprise is how sheerly old-fashioned the construction is. In recent years the BBC has delivered a succession of quality, naturalistic, subtle comedies. Stripped of a studio audience and the need to frame a script around “jokes”, productions are then free to convey something more realistic, less sarcastic, as well as allowing scope for scenes that may not necessarily raise a laugh but bring genuine dramatic interest. Enjoyable recent examples include Sunshine, Extras, and Gavin and Stacey.

Not Going Out however is resolutely shot in front of a studio audience, involves a battery of ceaseless quickfire gags, and makes hay with that staple of bland comedy – minor misunderstandings and pointless deceptions which quickly get out of hand all culminating in a final scene where the daftness reaches breaking point and the preposterous conceits are revealed. Moreover, most of the targets for its comedic focus could be found in any of the later Carry On films and save for the inclusion of the occasional expletive or over-cooked sex metaphor this series could quite happily serve as a curtain raiser for Sunday fare such as Songs of Praise.

In Episode 3, the plot turns on the arrival of a lesbian couple in Lee’s building. Or as Lee says to his best friend Tim on first sighting them “hang on, exotica one o’clock”. They celebrate the arrival of their new neighbours by opening a bottle of champagne and organise a party for themselves and the lesbians. The party is spoilt a) when only one lesbian turns up – the other having sensibly jettisoned both her and this risible situation, and b) Lee’s landlord/flatmate/love-interest Lucy arrives. The rest of the episode is taken up with male angst – Lee’s dismay as the predatory lesbian seeks to “turn” Lucy, and Tim concerned that his first girlfriend became a lesbian because of his poor kissing ability:

Tim - Her name was Lola.
Lee –She was a showgirl
Tim –What?
Lee – It’s a Barry Mannilow gag

Yes it sure is! How that hideous exchanged survived the editing process is beyond me. The inclusion of the phrase “it’s a Barry Mannilow gag” in the shooting script ought to generate the same sort of corporate nervousness as Jeremy Clarkson talking politics, or Russell Brand talking at all. Certainly, you cannot help feel the writers were playing with fire when Lee and his kooky cleaner, Barbara (played by Miranda Hart, a sort of cross between a fish and a horse, one of the oddest but ultimately most endearing looking women on mainstream television) exchanged gags which almost referenced how un-funny the script is:

Barbara – You’ll ruin any vague chance you have with Lucy if she finds out you and Tim are inviting strangers round to get your jollies.
Lee – I find that quite offensive actually. [pause] Do you really think I could get my jollies. [in response to her look of disgust] It’s a joke! The only foursome Tim ever gets involved with is in on the golf course.
Barbara – It’s always the posh ones that are swingers. Do you get it? Golf? Swingers? I’m in the wrong job.

The last sentence felt like the first one in the programme delivered with any real conviction.

Much is often made of the BBC’s supposed devotion to political correctness and minority inclusion, a notion thoroughly disabused here. The sexual politics of the programme are, at best, muddled and at worst unthinkingly spiteful. We run the gamut of lesbian stereotypes from the “hot” couple down the hall, to the angry man-hating book shop owner all amidst a sea of references to car mechanics and rugby coaches. “Why would we invite women to a lesbian party?” being just one of many sentiments delivered not quite ironically enough. The suggestion that the two male leads might have kissed each other is responded to with a heartfelt “don’t be disgusting”.

Punctuating these scenes, some only a couple of minutes in length, we are treated to blasts of Nelson Riddle-esque big band jazz as the camera swoops over the great financial institutions of London in what looks suspiciously like stock footage left over from The Apprentice. Quite what we ought to make of repeated allusions to The City are unclear. If you’ve lost your job because of the credit crunch and happen to believe the fault lies entirely at the door of our elite bankers this must be a tremendous distraction. It also brings into sharp relief that, from what I could tell during this episode, Lee doesn’t appear to have a job at all but doubtless there is some explanation in the show’s backstory which explains how he can afford to share a flat whose monthly rent must be nudging four figures.

For all that, Lee Mack is an endearing performer and he did wrench the one laugh of the piece out of me (his sudden appearance from behind a sofa just before Lucy was about to enjoy her first gay kiss) although I did feel cross at myself for laughing – a guilty pleasure that’s just a bit too guilty and not pleasurable enough to genuinely enjoy. Like a lot of performers, comedy panel shows seem to be a better showcase of Mack’s natural wit and comedic skills, his own team captaincy of Would I Lie To You? being genuinely successful.

Perhaps the greatest problem of Not Going Out is how it makes viewers aware that not going out is precisely their own status. At least back in the days of Frasier one could at least delude oneself that staying in on a Friday night guaranteed genuine televisual entertainment. This programme simply rubs it in right from the Sinatra glamour of the theme tune – I would complain that its inclusion would lead a more cynical man than me to conclude the title of the programme was chosen as an excuse to reference a favourite song of the writer that had little thematic relevance but that would probably be too hypocritical for words.