TV Review: Cheggers' Challenge

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The Independent Culture
Now, I know what you're going to say," announced the presenter of Home Front: In the Garden (BBC2). "Not another gardening programme with all that pricking out and potting and propagating." Actually, I wasn't going to say that. I was going to say "Oh no. Not another bloody makeover show." Only that morning, Cheggers' Challenge (BBC1) had descended on an innocent suburban close to transform a back garden into a DIY centre's vision of heaven - complete with a concrete birdbath and back-fence trellising. Indeed, the transformation genre is so popular now that you imagine these programmes must be having a depressive effect on the black economy. "Need any odd jobs doing? Cash in hand, no VAT." "No thanks. Real Rooms did the hallway last week, and Keith Chegwin's coming round on Wednesday to re-surface the drive. No, you can't talk to my husband, he's out being restyled by Nicky Clarke."

The appeal is obvious (and frankly hard to resist, even if you end up hooting with derision at the "after"). Where most people's domestic projects begin with a vast surplus of enthusiasm to know-how and peter out in a welter of clogged paint-brushes and botched preparation, here alteration is just a camera fade-away, effected by hordes of expert, ever-smiling artisans. It has a wonderfully tranquillising effect, the hard labour of improvement compressed so tight that the dust and disappointment and expense are squeezed out of sight. Watching a tatty south London backyard being turned into a suburban version of Yves Saint-Laurent's Moroccan garden you might almost believe in fairies.

Cheggers' Challenge is a bit more down to earth, and is built, a little inadvisedly I think, on the social skills of its presenter. Keith is an exclamation mark in a shell suit - "Hoh! Welcome to Newton-Le-Willows!" he chortles, voice full of zany promise, as if the labourers are going to turn up in giant foam rubber boots and be pelted with custard pies while they work. The catchphrase for the show appears to change every day (in one programme last week, it was "If you challenge us, we'll challenge you!" but yesterday Keith had moved on to "Let's get knocking!", something of a hostage to fortune I would have thought). The essential protocol remains the same, though - problems are solved by a hit squad of knowledgeable types who offer some mild instruction along the way. The programme is filled out by Cheggers' manic conversation with the challengers, which was yesterday marked by an odd circularity. Having established at the start of the programme that the lady of the house was an enthusiastic ballroom dancer and had won many trophies, Keith returned 15 minutes later to take the conversation a stage further: "Hey! You trip the light fantastic! Didn't you win a competition once?" Either Keith is having trouble with his short-term memory or you have here a truly frightening case - a man whose only model for human interaction is the "meet the contestants" section of a game show, with its radical thesis that identity consists of one hobby and a funny anecdote.

The end result in Home Front: In the Garden was much more alluring than that produced by Cheggers' Challenge - unless, that is, you favour a large dog-toilet in your back garden. The problem here wasn't the overall plan - which was charming - but the presence of Ann McKevitt, a designer whose universal solution to all design problems seems to be a coat of retina- damaging paint and a light scattering of mirror tiles. "You won't recognize it by the time we've finished with it," someone said at one point, and when McKevitt comes on the scene you suddenly recognise the gangster's ambiguity of that phrase. Perhaps there is employment here for all those cowboy builders that have been made redundant by celebrity decorators - a protection racket in which nervous home-owners will be told to cough up or else be well and truly McKevitted, waking up one morning to find that their house has been painted fuschia with aquamarine detailing.