The tagline of the Eulogize This site is ‘Praising the peaks of culture’. Culture is music, literature, drama, cinema, painting, ceramics, architecture… it’s the epic artistic statements that form the basis of tourist attractions, pub quizzes and Monty Python sketches. But of course it’s also much more than that. Aside from ‘timeless’ culture, there is also everyday culture: advertisements, jingles, internet memes, gossip, and the style of television documentaries known as reality TV. These things are generally not given the same acclaim, and they’re not designed to get it. They’re built to be kind of disposable: the Amazon packing cardboard of our shared experience. But in this article I would like to sing the praises of one such reality TV show — DIY SOS : The Big Build.
The original DIY SOS show first aired on 7 October 1999 on BBC One as part of a television trend for home makeover programmes. The format was that viewers would send in their unfinished DIY disasters, and a team of presenters and professionals would go to their houses and fix them, whilst educating the viewing audience about building and decorating in the process. This series became a hit, and ran until 2010. And then the format was rejigged slightly, and they hit on a formula that turned it into a ratings juggernaut that started to outstrip British TV behemoths like Coronation Street and The Apprentice.
This was despite the fact that reality TV had run into a landslide of bad press over the years. Ridiculed for being cheap in every sense, shows like Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here became the think-piece touchstones for everything that was wrong with modern culture. It was mercilessly parodied as a genre, first by comedian Peter Kay in That Peter Kay Thing and then the global hit sitcom The Office, until eventually parodies of reality TV became an entire comedy genre. The central comedy thesis was nearly always that as soon as you brought television characters out and started filming ordinary members of the public, they would stop acting in ordinary ways and would start showing off in the hope that they might get a Channel 4 miniseries out of it.
But there were some shows that escaped the critical scorched earth, and that are still on terrestrial television today. 24 Hours In A&E is one. Grand Designs is another. I think both are great television. But as the financial crisis of 2008 morphed into the austerity crisis that Britain is still bogged down in, I personally started to find that shows like Grand Designs — in which moneyed couples spend hundreds of thousands of pounds building their dream home — began to leave a really bad taste in the mouth.
DIY SOS, on the other hand, moved with the times. In 2010 it became DIY SOS: The Big Build, and the format was completely changed: instead of helping aspirational DIYers who wanted to improve their most valuable capital asset, they provided domestic solutions to families with severe disabilities. Which often involved large building and decorating projects. And it all had to be done in nine days. The format had one more twist: they asked local tradespeople to volunteer their time and skills to help the build out. Which could so easily come across as exploitative. But instead, this is where the show really gets interesting.
There are many novelists and film-makers that like to surprise their audiences with random acts of kindness: just as we start to suspect that humanity is rotten to the core, we see hordes of strangers appearing to help out our heroes and heroines. This reality TV show does the same thing in every single episode, but for real. Builders and decorators, plumbers and electricians, carpenters and roofers come from far and wide, take time away from their own paid work, to volunteer their labour and skills for a family that they don’t even know.
Now, the change in format was a great idea, but actually it’s still no guarantee of great television. The thing that fundamentally makes it work, as far as I’m concerned, is the skill of the host Nick Knowles. In fact, it’s one skill in particular: it’s his ability to dial the sentimentality right down. This programme format is hardly unique on television, and I’ve seen plenty of tragic reality TV domestic stories that descend into patronising interviews, invasive camera close-ups and teeth-grindingly manipulative plinky-plonky piano music. Knowles, on the other hand, is always trying to bring the tone of the show back to something approaching normality: to an unforced chirpy Blitz-spirit keep-calm-and-carry-on whistle-while-you-work attitude.
But he doesn’t by any means shy away from the seriousness of the illnesses that the show features. Just as you’re thinking “so… does that mean their child could literally just drop dead any day now?” he’ll say something like: “Well, you mentioned that doctor’s recent prognosis… just how serious is the situation, if you don’t mind me asking?” And the parent might then say that yes, their child might die at any moment.
You don’t get the sense (or I don’t get the sense, at least) that the interviews are in any way staged or forced. Everyone is just very matter-of-fact about the situation. Or… they are to begin with. And it’s the deliberate eschewing of sentimentality that makes this show such an emotional tsunami when the dam finally bursts. Because, if you’re like me, this is not a programme you can watch with other people. This is something to watch by yourself, maybe in a log cabin somewhere, far away. Where you can’t be observed. Where no one can see you taking the journey through what I call ‘the Gauntlet of Tears’.
And every time I fall for it. As the programme rolls along and I get brief snippets of how difficult the family has found it to cope with a special needs family member in their tiny, impractical house I’ll say to myself “You know what? This is nowhere near as heart-rending as I thought it would be. I’m not having any problem remaining stoical through this.” But of course, this is only the beginning. We haven’t even had the Nick Knowles interview with the mother, when she explains in a very believable and down-to-earth way why having a special needs child was the best thing that ever happened to her, made her grow as a person, and how her biggest fear is that one day they’ll be gone.
And then they really turn the screws. Then they unveil the finished project to the family, room by room. And just because you keep a dry eye through the initial unveiling of the hall and the kitchen doesn’t mean you’ll be able to cope with the child’s specially tailored bedroom and bathroom, with its new expensive mobility-assistance equipment. And just as you’re struggling to rein it all in, they hit you with a completely unexpected broadside: the bedrooms for the child’s siblings, who up to now have been expected to forget about their own needs. This is the point where everyone in the family starts telling each other how much they love each other and how much they deserve this, because they’ve worked so hard all these years without ever complaining or thinking of themselves. And if this sounds dreadfully contrived, it really isn’t. This is just how people react in these situations — you see it again and again.
And then comes the hardest bit of all. The family are all led out of the house to meet the scores of builders who have worked solidly for nine days to build this thing. And really, that’s where it’s all over. The first camera shot of a grizzled builder with a face like a quarry starting to tear up and you had better have a pillow ready to stuff into your mouth, or you will be whimpering like a lost puppy.
Genuinely, if there was an opera that was able to reproduce half of the emotion that this one hour show can, I would be spending this article singing the praises of opera.
But there isn’t. So I’m not.
For me, DIY SOS hits all the high notes that any great work of art does. And it has the added benefit of being real.