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A Deep Dive Into ‘Grand Designs’, the Greatest Show on British Television

Or: why middle class couples in gilets are determined to build their legacy.

by Joel Golby
24 October 2017, 7:45am

(All screenshots via Channel 4)

When the class war inevitably comes, I want to be a general. Do I have the tactical nous to be a general? No. Military experience? No. Do I have the innate leadership qualities necessary to lead a platoon into battle? Frequent end-of-year reviews of my work performance suggest that I do not have any leadership qualities, at all. But I do have something else, something unteachable: I have the sheer will, the frothing rage, the propulsion, the engine and the gears.

It will happen: the class war will begin, beautifully, terribly, and chaos will reign. Tory heads roll through the streets. Blood in the gutters, so much blood it foams. We'll ransack Russian mansions and take the gold to the hospitals. And I will be Lt. Aldo Raine, and you will be my inglourious basterds, and together we will explode the cinema. And, crucially, this: we will rove this flaming land, dismantling brick by brick every single over-budget build from the canon of Grand Designs. Take Kevin McCloud's head and put it on a spike. Made of zinc, and polished concrete. And I will whisper the word, gentle as the wind: parity.

* * *

Grand Designs is a TV show where normie couples in fleeces construct dream homes with a budget of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands. Kevin McCloud occasionally will watch. Sometimes they build homes from the ground up, the couples, on reclaimed land out in the middle of fucking nowhere; most often they build over the top of another, entirely functional house, which they slowly destroy then raise a cathedral in the footprint of.

It does not matter where they build the house, or from what: the house will always be nearly fucking impossible to access with any traditional building equipment. This is a recurring theme of Grand Designs. Another recurring theme: around the 26-minute mark of any episode, the couple will completely run out of money and pull a couple of faces about it over a dimly-lit kitchen table, and then just somehow magic up another mortgage out of fucking nowhere. Recurring theme: Kevin McCloud will sit in a quiet part of the build site and, using props seemingly lifted from a Blue Peter make, explain semi-complex building concepts and how the couple intends to insulate. Recurring theme: the couple, pressed now to build a house with a mere seven-hundred thousand pounds, will take on some sort of building job themselves, constructing a drystone wall around the building, or intricately tiling a kitchen. The couple will decide that, actually, with the budget so stretched, do they really need interior walls? This will go on for a while, and then, after the third advertising break, Kevin McCloud visits for a final, cherry picker camera angle swooping tour of the house, now bedded in with grass, and furniture, and expensive continental box-framed windows. "It is our dream," the couple will say. "It's just, so… perfect." Then they all turn to the camera, in eerie unison, and chant together: "It is our………….. GRAND DESIGN!"

The last bit does not happen, but it would not be that weird if it did. Such is the tone of Grand Designs.

* * *

Grand Designs is very cosy television. It nestles in that tricky something-inoffensive-to-eat-your-dinner-to 8PM slot that More4 excels at. That's what people like to see when they're eating their dinner: someone quietly looking around a house, or quietly cooking, or just very quietly going on a date with each other, tenderly and quietly falling in love. It's hard to be offended by Grand Designs. It is hard to be moved to anger or delight. It's just there, puttering away, like an over-schedule build on a reclaimed water tower in Kent.

But it is a very Tory television programme, we have to address that. It's not as Tory as, say, everything Kirstie Allsopp has ever been in, or that show about Miranda Hart walking around a garden with her mum, or A Question of Sport. It's not as Tory as Location, Location, Location or Homes Under the Hammer even, when home-ownership and by-to-let probate resale is fetishised to something dark and nearly sexual. But it is, fundamentally, a very Tory TV programme. Middle class couples decide to jazz up their marriage by, instead of having an affair, ploughing £1.2 million into a south London refurb project. CEOs of software companies agonising over slate. In the midst of a decade-long housing crisis, the very notion of Grand Designs is profane: the idea that, amongst the hundreds of thousands who can't or won't ever afford to get on the housing ladder, with a crisis in terms of sheer buildings being built, that an entire generation may be lost to renting: that in amongst all that, a 38-year-old couple with two daughters called Poppy are agonising over which particular £60,000 windows to import from Germany. The housing market is divided neatly in two: below, hell; above, glorious heaven.

Grand Designs is vital television, though, because it thoroughly and without judgment documents and classifies the British Middle Class, as though it were making a nature documentary out of them, David Attenborough hanging quietly out behind some leaves, watching, whispering, "and now, the male is being told by builders that the work is going to take seven months longer than anticipated: he is too afraid to question the rough-skinned working class men. Behind him, the female spends the entire frigid winter living on-site but in a caravan, slowly being driven insane. The children mewl at her hem for their breakfast, of homemade yoghurt and a simple snack of an apple."

The B.M.C. is under-documented on British television, and rightly, really: they are the ones who have ascended the ladder of class to the cosiest rung and then just spread out there, lopping off the bottom for the rest of us. They do not need representation on TV, too, because they have Bake Off and Giles and Mary off Gogglebox, and they have the political party they want in parliament, and they have pensions. They don't need to have everything, because they already have mostly everything. But you see how Grand Designs fits on top of what image they have built, like an imported eco-roof lowered slowly onto a concrete foundational shell.

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE BRITISH MIDDLE CLASSES BY WATCHING GRAND DESIGNS, A LIST

– It is impossible to dress well and also be middle class. The men wear quilted gilets in shiny reds and blues, and tactical fleeces, and khaki trousers with the pockets weighed down by objects. Jeans and knitted half-zip jumpers. On their feet are either Karrimor trainers or high-brand wellington boots. They all have a natty collection of linen scarves. The women dress the same as this. The children dress the same as this. The aesthetic of Grand Designs could be roughly described as "Yung Dad".

– The British Middle Class have been bred to believe they are deeply capable of anything up to and including specialist building work, which is why every single build has some Rory who knows about wine dusting his hands a bit and saying what is essentially, "Welding? Any fucker can weld. I'm going to do the welding myself after reading a couple of WikiHows, to cut costs. If these thick cunts can do it – "[poshly gestures at a number of builders who are all deeply uncomfortable to be on camera anyway]" – then surely I, a man with a BA, can do it too."

– Nobody who builds a grand house hewn deep into the ragged edges of the English countryside has any idea how to tastefully decorate the interior; they don't have any idea about that at all.

– There truly is no need for the couple to be involved. None, at all. Every episode. No need. Go to work, leave it to the builders. Even though this whole thing is a rich person flex, they could just get an architect to project manage a build then move in when it's done. There is no need for the stress of being on site, in a hard hat, pointing to where electricity sockets will be. Every time a member of the couple is anywhere near the home they are building, they are actively slowing down build time.

– They all fucking put zinc on their house, somehow.

Grand Designs is for people who live in an economic reality where moving home because you quite fancy a place with a conservatory is a realistic ideal, and it exposes that inter-generational fracture exactly: at one end, 38-year-olds in young families who just dodged the post-graduation recession, just got a toe on the housing ladder, and are thriving accordingly: at the other, rawer end, me, the man who will never have a home in his lifetime, watching them knock down a wall just to build another, slightly smoother, wall in its place. No other show straddles the fine line between cosy teatime snugness and overwhelming economic depression, no other show pitches aspiration so vividly against reality, no other show pretends that paying £200,000 for some concrete flooring is an un-profane thing.

– Everyone in the British Middle Class is really mad about having to pay heating bills so instead spend £600,000 on building an entire house from the ground up with the primary goal being "to minimise or entirely eliminate heating bills".

– Shot: a woman tells Kevin she is pregnant but we'll "definitely be moved in before the baby is born". Shot: slow descent as pregnancy ruins project, build time, scheduling. Shot: tired-eyed presentation of the babe, to Kevin, in his finest Canada Goose and linen scarf, still living in a temporary home pitched on loose shale on-site.

– Every member the British Middle Class wants a games room in the basement. Every member of the British Middle Class has a ruddily healthy adult son who likes to play sports.

– Nobody is happy, really, in the British Middle Class. They are all entirely joyless throughout. At no point does anyone laugh, or do banter. They point across the road at a field they've had to rent from a nearby farmer to keep materials in. They point down the hill and note the incline makes the build "20 to 30 percent more difficult". Nobody laughs, and nobody is joyful with the results. They stare out of the double-glazed window they spent 24 months putting in place, at the staggering green view beyond it, and say, tonelessly, "This is what we wanted." Is anyone, in Grand Designs' world, happy? Does anyone feel even an atom of joy?

– Every member of the British Middle Class has this deep lingering need to be remembered, somehow, for something, as if ascending to comfortable wealth and having two children raised in a countryside setting is somehow worthy of statues and plaques and memorials. Only when they realise that after they die the country will not stop and hold a two-minute silence in honour of them they instead embark on a massive building project – mauling the hillside of an otherwise traditional village, floating a house along special stays in the flood plain of the Thames, building a shimmering tower of chrome and glass and reclaimed steel – which they hold their hands aloft in during Grand Designs' self-congratulatory fourth act and say, "This will be here… long… after we… are gone."

The most important thing you have to understand about Grand Designs is that – beyond the occasional budgetary wobble, or some sort of scheduling miscommunication between the ground team and some lad who is driving a truck full of eaves over from Holland or some shit – there is a near-complete absence of the tension and conflict that traditionally progress story in literally every other type of TV and film.

This is why we have Kevin McCloud: Kevin is there to put two stiff hands into the pockets of his gilet, and lick his bottom lip while looking up at a gap where a roof should be, and stare down at rainwater pooling on concrete, and to go, "Is this it?" Kevin McCloud, more than anyone in television, is the unnecessary voice of doom. "Do you know what your budget is?" Kevin asks (Kevin does not flinch away from money talk: Kevin runs into money talk like a bull). "And how are you guys finding it – a stretch?" Kevin asks (Kevin does not flinch away from delicate talk about the stability of your marriage: Kevin runs after that topic like a bulldog after a cat). "How long – realistically – until you guys move in?" Kevin asks, and they tell him March, hopefully, maybe April. "But didn't you want to be moved in by Christmas?" Kevin does not forget a single thing you have ever said to him and he uses it to cut you when you are at your lowest ebb.

I suppose the central question here is: is Kevin McCloud, the sideburns lad off Grand Designs, is Kevin McCloud a dickhead? And the answer is yes as much as it is no. Kevin isn't a dickhead because he's just very direct, and sometimes when he crashes between a meek couple whose adult son has left home and now they find themselves with £1.2 million and a hole in their lives that can't be filled by anything but excessively complex concrete-based construction work, that directness gets mistranslated a little along the way, comes out as dickheadishness.

But then, also, it is entirely necessary that McCloud plays the dickhead here: he is the doubter, pushing mild stories about homebuilding forwards: he needs to add narrative to something that is so often just two people stood alone in an empty field, imagining things. Without Kevin, it would be the cuddliest show on television – "A man called Ben and a woman called Catherine slowly assemble a beautiful slate-accented home" – but instead he zips round corners, asks when stairs will be put in, points at uninstalled light sockets, asks how living at the mother-in-law's house is going.

Building a house seems the most stressful thing a human being can choose to do to themselves – you feel these couples invite a huge nailbomb of an experience into their lives in lieu of, like, giving dogging a go, or just getting a divorce: Build Me A House, Darling, Just To Keep Things Spicy – and Kevin somehow makes that doubly stressful, triply so. He points at a patch of ground surrounded by warning tape that has been flapping weakly in the wind all summer. "You told me eight months ago that would be concrete by now," he says. "Using this glass is daring," Kevin says. Then: "Possibly a little predictable." Yes, yes, he is a dickhead. But he is a dickhead because he has to be.

The final act of the show is always the same: bright day, roving camera angles, an inside-out look at the completed build. Suddenly the same stupid wall you have watched being agonisingly built for 40 minutes looks like art. Somehow the weird intricate folding shutter system on the front of the house makes sense. The floor, which for months has been tamped down with sand and residue from the boots of a dozen workers, is swept clear and polished to a high shine. Clean black slate meshes with cold chrome. The house suddenly looks complete and three-dimensional with the addition of a kitchen. Kevin code-shifts to a sort of breathy, near-pornographic descriptive mode: "Smooth curves," he says, a lot, "Dazzling surfaces."

"This really was," he says, as the camera fades up, "an enormously ambitious project." It is ambitious, because it's pointless. Every single one of these builds is pointless. Grand Designs is just a TV programme where rich couples in body-warmers fuck up their lives for absolutely no reason. Every single project is built over a home where another home nearby would just do. None of these people need to build these monuments, but they do, and Kevin loves them. Strange vanity projects to serve the egos of the already gilded. And the camera spins up, and away, and we wait until next time – the same old cycle again, buy a plot of land, live in a caravan, build a three-floor home with one sunken level and the bedrooms underneath the living room, cry, live, laugh, love, carefully drive a double-length truck down a three-mile country lane – the same dance, again and again and again, until the sun explodes in the sky.

Grand Designs is the only constant in a housing market doomed to punish us. Enjoy it as much as you can.

@joelgolby