Television Review: Last Night

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The Independent Culture
"One point three million people in Britain are earning their living in the building trade," said Stewart Brand, "a large number of them fighting the forces of decay." Not one of them is dug in on the neglected front of my rotting bathroom windowsill, despite repeated attempts at recruitment, which is perhaps why I watched "The Romance of Maintenance" - last night's instalment of How Buildings Learn (BBC2) - with a certain uneasy fixation. That slightly unlikely title introduced a half-hour cadenza on the theme of "spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar", reminding me that if I didn't act soon, hearth and home would eventually crumble to dust.

Brand's point was twofold - not just that all buildings need loving care, but that we have increasingly turned to materials which conceal the symptoms of decay until it is too late: "Do you want a material that acts bad before it looks bad, or that looks bad before it acts bad?" he asked, patting a stretch of weathered brick with a fond hand. The moralistic undertone of "acts bad" isn't really out of place here, because in these amiable sermons there is a strong sense of architecture as a holistic enterprise, almost a form of moral discipline. The Lambeth maintenance worker who said "a building's like a living fing, you know", will have surely earned a smile of approval from the presenter.

Brand's exemplary buildings were New England clapboard houses, mendable and giving, and English timber-frame buildings, arthritically twisted in many cases, but still standing after hundreds of years. His admonitory edifices included an early housing scheme designed by the young Norman Foster, and a truly scandalous block of flats in Stepney, where the inhabitants lived under perpetually dripping ceilings. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they would have been better off in a cave - at least they wouldn't have had the mocking geometry of four walls to remind them of how very far they were from having a home.

The maintenance of a drama series is a very different affair. Here the owner must ensure that emotional relationships are kept in a state of finely balanced dereliction; there must be incipient signs of distress in one part of the fabric, ominous creaks from bonds that have been neglected in another. And every now and then they should arrange for a really noisy collapse, just to ensure that we don't get complacent. The final episode of This Life (BBC2) showed how it should be done - "Outstanding," said Warren, reappearing in very last seconds at Miles's wedding reception to find Ferdy with his tongue down the throat of a young man in a kilt, and Anna and Rachel in the middle of a windmilling fistfight. I'm a bit besotted with This Life at the moment - inclined to overlook its occasional tics and bad habits - but this really was a good showcase for what makes the series so watchable. There was a nice scene between Egg and Milly in which accidental double-entendres kept snagging on her guilty conscience; a fine wordless sequence in which Anna waited to see whether Miles would enter her bedroom, and gave a tiny flinch at the sound of his bedroom door closing off her options; a tensely embarrassing cliff-hanger when Egg, having discovered Milly's infidelity, abandoned his prepared speech and appeared to be about to spill the beans to the assembled guests. There was also a lot of authentically bad dancing, some oblique jokes which didn't strain to explain themselves, and even a telling repetition - both Egg and Milly used the phrase "stressing out" about each other, as if long intimacy had co-ordinated their vocabulary.

"I'm gonna miss all this," Egg said at the end of his last gossip with an unmarried Miles. Quite a few of the loyal viewers do already, I imagine, using the series as a nostalgic window on a peculiarly heady time of life - somewhere between obedience and responsibility, final exams and the mortgage. A post-credit sequence showed a hand outlining a rental ad for the house, so the tenants may be about to change. But if they can keep the house in order as they have been doing, the third series will be worth waiting for.

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