A tale from my notes: "Martin Roberts is the weirdest cunt alive." This is, perhaps, unfair. But there is something singularly surreal and unusual about the man, hair blown out in Fieri-esque hedgehog spikes, the cheery smile of a Butlins entertainer who is visualising how best to attack you with a hammer; cheerful but capable of great violence.
Another excerpt, from the notes: "Martin Roberts has a vibe I can only describe as 'sinister camp'." He smiles unblinkingly and shows you all his teeth. He pivots on the spot and, in a grandiose gesture with his hands, points out to you a damp patch. "And here's where I buried the dog, the wife and the son," you keep expecting Martin Roberts to say, as he walks you through a blind-buy in Warrington. "There's period features here – a fireplace, perfect for burning their skulls, and a ceiling rose, decorated with a single drop of blood – that can really add value to a property."
Some shows I watch (at great, great length) could give-or-take the presenter propping them open; Take Me Out, for example, truly could be hosted by anyone in a suit. However, some shows would choke and die without the unique skillset and delicate demeanour of their presenter: Naked Attraction, a show made impossible without Anna Richardson. And then you have shows where the presenter and the format are intrinsic to one another, the way bread added to cheese makes a sandwich: Martin Roberts is Homes Under the Hammer. But Homes Under the Hammer is Martin Roberts. Does that make sense? You are watching his ribs, and his flesh, and his blood. You are watching his soul trapped in miles of double-glazing. You are watching the very essence of the man. Let Martin Roberts push this door open and tell you where he'd put a wet room.
Let Martin Roberts – the weirdest cunt alive, remember – tell you who he is.
The format of Homes Under the Hammer – or HutH, as fans of the show ("Hammerheads") call it – is so repetitive as to be hypnotic. We open, inexplicably, in a non-National Trust operated country mansion garden on an unsunny day. Dion Dublin is there. Previously, for 20 straight seasons, Roberts' co-host Lucy Alexander was there too, but she left the show earlier this year. Martel Maxwell, who is Scottish, replaces her. And there – in a big coat folded against the not-quite-rain of whatever sunny-with-a-chance-of-rain day they are filming the idents on – is Roberts, hair resplendent, teeth a beaming white. "Hello!" he says, as if greeting you onto a cruise ship at the start of a ten-day trip that is spoiled by an inexplicable murder. There is no further introduction. "Now—"
Homes Under the Hammer is an amateurish show, let us get that out of the way now. A lot of TV exists in a space of glamour and prestige – immaculate sets, show homes, the entire cast of TOWIE having a contoured argument on a picturesque bridge. HutH lives in a different space altogether: it is in overgrown gardens, and behind creaking doors. A lot of the staircases have collapsed here. Some of HutH’s most exciting set pieces occur in auction houses, where men who wear Bluetooth headsets and have a near-palpable air of coffee breath about them drearily bid against each other in a room with the all the vibe and elan of a post-Thatcher job centre. Most of the properties on this show can charitably be described as being "somewhere a nan just died". It is not a place we retract into to escape our lives with an injection of glossy fantasy.
This extends to the presenting style, too, which is often so rushed it has an air of genuine panic about it. We are on series 21 of the show now, and six of the last seven series have gone on for 80 or more shows (series 15, from March 2011 to March 2012, lasted 100 episodes), at a rate of three properties per episode. Sometimes property transformations will take years to complete – haircuts will change, plans will change with them, people will die and extensions will be put on hold – but the sheer juggernaut of the show must go on. And what I am saying is: maintaining a series like this, episode after episode, must be a logistical feat of its own. The sheer quantity of properties to visit and revisit must spin the head of even the most seasoned producer. And in this fast-paced world, there is no space for Dion Dublin to have another swing at it.
And so we burst through the door. Roberts, Dublin, Alexander and Martell are all master-level experts in narrating properties exactly as they encounter them: "This porch has seen better days," Martell says, letting herself creak through it regardless while, in the West Midlands, Dion Dublin "can't see any central heating in here – but I might be wrong". Martin Roberts is in Fareham cheerfully describing a smell. Lucy Alexander has found a possible problem with this home: the sound of the doorbell is violently jarring.
All of this is first-take, first impression stuff: Dion Dublin says a garden will only take a weekend to sort out ("But I’m not doing it"); Martell is inexplicably dancing to suggest how to use an annexe off a kitchen; Martin Roberts is climbing into a flat via a ladder. We cut briefly to the auction – around 15 percent of the show is auction footage, which is too much auction footage by around fourteen-and-a-half percent – then back to the house, where whoever is inspecting the property is joined by the new landlord.
The vibe of every interaction on the show is "we've got a quick half-hour but that's all I can do you". The vibe of every interaction is "I'm parked on a single yellow so let's make this quick". Watch for long enough and you get familiar with the auction houses, the auctioneers, the days on which Britain's houses and plots were sold. Martin Roberts remembers an estate agent from before. A couple in matching doesn't-matter-if-they-get-paint-on-them T-shirts greet Lucy Alexander like an old friend. We go back to the country house for Martin Roberts to yell at us about doing research.
Homes Under the Hammer is a TV show built on the simple premise of buying a dilapidated or otherwise unwanted property at auction (no good house is ever sold at auction: it is always the broken biscuits of the property world, a house with no stairs or an ominous living room stain, or a single heaving ceiling, or just one or two leftover toys in an old bedroom, and nothing else) and then "finishing it to the highest professional standard", and then selling it, at a profit of a decent annual salary, or renting it to some oblivious idiot scum. The highest professional standard means, more often than not, "paint all the walls white, put down laminate flooring or a grey carpet, fit B&Q's cheapest kitchen".
When Roberts tots up the money spent at the end of each episode, you truly see a peek under the murky underlay at the reality of the property market for those who have the freedom to play with it: Mick from Roehampton makes £80k by simply putting a new bathroom in; Jen in Tenby bought a house, did nothing with it for a year, then sold it for £30k. In South Norwood, a pair of developers take a studio apartment (£80k), spend £22k absolutely ruining it (inexplicable hallway, failed planning permission on an extension, kitchen pivoted round and installed the wrong way), then sell the ruined flat for £160k. John from Bilston buys a house at auction (77k), leaves it derelict while he waits on a mining survey, then Dion Dublin gives him the bad news: if the house is near one of the mine shafts that litter the area, he can only sell it for £100k. If it isn't, it's £130k. We wait with baited breath. There is no mineshaft. John pays a gardener £80 to tidy up the backyard then flips it for £110k. "What were your costs?" Dion Dublin asks. "I spent £100 on weedkiller," John laughs. Dion Dublin claps his enormous hands together. "That's a lot of weedkiller!" That's £34,000 profit for tidying a garden, Dion. The system's fucked up.
For this reason, the same pairs of property buyers come up again and again and again, sometimes literally but most often different faces pulled taut over these same skeletons, and they are:
— An older couple, a man and a woman, whose relationship status is not immediately clear – are they husband and wife? Lovers? Brother and sister? Just… friends? – because they diligently refer to each other as "business partner" and have the same wind-blown wrinkles on their faces, and though you can't tell for sure whether they’ve fucked before, fucking something is going on – something is weird and off about them. Which as we all know probably means one thing and one thing alone, and that is that they are swingers;
— A dad-and-lad team, the dad in his fifties but says he is close to retiring, the dad very symbolically handing the reins of his business (flipping property at the behest of the wider market and exploiting people's inherent need for shelter to make money) over to his large adult son, the son being one of three sub-son personalities, and those are:
— Lad With Haircut And Flash Car, who the dad very patently does not trust, as the lad has none of the patina on the hands and face that comes with a lifetime of hard work, and because the dad brought him up well and with property money, he is worried the son doesn’t know how to apply a skirting board with glue enough to add £40k to the value of a house;
— Young Son Who Means Well, often the son himself having just had a baby, his first, and at this moment in his life his dad has decided he is man enough now to take an £80k terrace in Tipton and flip the fucker for £150k;
— Son With Two Mobile Phones Who’s Actually Very Competent, who the dad trusts with everything – auction, overseeing the build, TV appearance, finding tenants – apart from the actual money, which the son will always point out is, above all, the dad's;
— Extremely strange newly-retired man in a wig!
— Quietly cold-blooded woman with a career she left behind to flip property instead, and though on the surface she gives off a sort of beatific blonde smile about things, you also very much get the impression she's changed the locks on a tenant before and made more than one family re-home their dog because she decided to play the bitch and change her mind on a contractual clause;
— Childless older couple who have the tactile intimacy of me trying to wrestle an alligator into a car;
— Two mates, mid-thirties, who are on their second build together and both have some weird inside knowledge of the building trade, i.e. at least one of them is gas registered and the other is already comfortably wealthy;
— But crucially it is the bloodlessness of these people, the wraparound shades and the tucked-in polo shirts, the way they wear their mobile phone on their belts, the pragmatism of it all. For a daytime TV show, HutH is built on a fundamentally evil concept – selling property for exceptional profit while guided by made-up systems of taste and market rate – and every single one of these amateur and half-amateur developers have the same approach: buy low, fit the exact same kitchen and exact same taps over a six-week period using the exact same builders, sell or rent to the highest nearest desperate rube. The mechanic of Homes Under the Hammer – do the bare minimum to a property to make it liveable, then move on quickly and at great profit – is a fundamentally poor reflection on the country and the property market within it as a whole. The fact that it's the same 20 or so interchangeable people with Midlands accents doing it – the same sub-patter with their partner, the same application for planning permission, the same inexplicable decision to put up a partition wall – makes the experience even more depressing. The vast majority of this country’s domestic property market is ruled by people who have £80k spare to spend at an auction and the will to get up early enough to let the builders in, and that’s it.
We have to talk about the music, though. This viral clip of the show probably best encapsulates exactly what HutH is all about: a boring conversation bounced off the empty rooms of a horrendously decorated home; Martin Roberts very politely asking questions to keep a flagging conversation alive ("Have they… been successful at showjumping?"), the kind of chat you end up having with an old woman in a supermarket queue where you truly cannot escape her, feigning interest as she tells you how many of her dogs are ill; and then, as the two property developers stare stiffly at a window as if they are aliens from another planet emotionlessly encountering glass for the first time, an incredibly literal soundtrack, the clear result of an editor locked in a dark room with 80 episodes of home-buying to cut, going truly, truly mad:
Roberts explains that he wouldn't have a boiler in a master bedroom: Hall & Oates' I Can’t Go For That plays. Martel explains a tired four-bed could be spruced up to make a serviceable family home – " it's not confidential / I've got potential" from " Somebody Told Me" plays. Dion Dublin, shouting now, tells me Ramsgate has its own meridian line, while some free jazz about "time" plays in the background. And Martin Roberts, again and again and again, finds something weird about a property – two microwaves, a walk-in fridge, no stairs, an internal window – and claims it to be "bizarre", and as we watch B-roll of ceiling roses and green-tinted bedrooms and carpets curling over other layers of carpet and sinks filled with dust, we hear the first few strings and then the trumpets, and then that chorus, same one, again and again and again, the unofficial theme song of Homes Under The Hammer – "How Bizarre" by OMC.
Who is Homes Under the Hammer for? It shows at 10AM on BBC One, and I cannot quite get into the headspace of who might be watching it, and how they might find this information in any way informative or useful to their day-to-day life: a freelancer, barely out of pyjamas? A young mum, feeding two kids? Your nan, quietly ironing, who likes Martin Roberts because he’s "polite"? Why is former Manchester United and Coventry City striker Dion Dublin there? Why does nobody scope the house they're about to pop their head into for a few seconds before they start filming? Why is Martin Roberts, wearing two or maybe three jackets, standing in a stately garden telling me to "always… read… the legal… pack!"? Who is this for?
Maybe it doesn't matter. Because despite the inherent evil underpinning the entire Homes Under the Hammer enterprise, watching it quickly becomes entrancing. You see the monstrous ways people live: foam ceiling tiles, plaster architraves, build-in TV stands, tumorous garages, wood chip wallpaper, lightbulbs without the shade. You start to anticipate the warm gong of Dion Dublin yelling "it took a while to get going" over two-year-old auction footage.
Does this show make me depressed? Yes, wholly: it's couples in ill-fitting fleeces making annual salaries' worth of profit for putting a new bath in. It's the entire broken housing market made flesh. It's the heart-puncturing reality that I will be lucky to afford a terrace in Netherton before I die. It's Martin Roberts, hissing at the camera before climbing through the screen. But do I still find myself curiously invested in the reveal shot? Yes. Do I sit through the constant re-telling and re-summarising sections of the show to see how they got the stairs done, the kitchen fitted? Yes.
Everybody on this show is wonky, or odd, or capable of killing. None can walk into a room like they've ever walked into a room before. Homes Under the Hammer is built on two solid foundations: flipping property for profit, and not really knowing what to do with your arms when a camera is pointed at you. And, under the glorious mad tutelage of Martin Roberts, it comes together to something bigger, something more. He puts a new bathroom and some skirting board in the format of it, and flips it onto something more. And again, and again, and again, until the sea erodes the shore, until every known copy of " How Bizarre" by OMC is destroyed, until Dion Dublin finally headers himself into the grave. And Martin Roberts will stand on the ruins of what’s left and – perkily, like a family friend trying to explain divorce to a toddler – describe how a partition wall and new patio could really add value to the remains.