Once it was the height of suburban aspiration. Now it's for burying bodies
It may look flat to most of us, but the patio has been going downhill for years. In the 1970s, this checkerboard of flagstones or pastel concrete slabs promised warm continental evenings, strappy summer frocks and the opportunity to consume large quantities of medium-sweet white wine.

"Shall we take our drinks out to the patio?" Was there ever a more seductive invitation? Even if you knew that meant goosepimples in the breeze, barracking from next door and a whiff of creosote.

Today, patios have less innocent associations. We have all read about those rubber-gloved and wellingtoned policemen setting to with x-ray machine and pneumatic drill, disinterring one more victim of the suburbs. The concrete squares and rustic flagstones have become butchers' slabs.

A string of murders, not all of them in Brookside Close, has undermined the foundations of the patio idyll. The footings and slabwork beyond the kitchen window have become the domestic equivalent of the motorway viaduct, its concrete bulked out with blood. On Friday, the latest of the patio killers, Kenneth Peatfield, was jailed for life after killing his lover and encasing her head in a concrete block, which he planned to use as part of a patio at the home they shared in Chapeltown, near Sheffield.

Peatfield is not alone. Despite 50 years of marital counselling, several ill-matched couples have persisted in dealing with things quietly, at home, sometimes choosing to bury their mistakes. Professional criminals, meanwhile, have been forced by circumstances to bring their work home. And leave it there. Just four weeks ago, the body of gangland drug dealer Joe Rouse - known as Joe the Crow - was found beneath the patio of a suburban house in Southall, west London.

None of this is the fault of the patio, which came here from Spanish- America on a Mexican wave of enthusiasm - un patio is a courtyard or a child's sandpit. In Spanish colonial and Mexican homes it is a floor at the centre of the building, open to the air, with rooms on all sides.

In budget posadas and fincas it's where the landlady does the washing, keeps her chickens and enjoys a shouting match with her hombre while you're wide awake, scratching hard and wondering why you didn't go to the Holiday Inn.

That charming intimacy was discarded when the patio was adopted in North America as part of the 1950s vogue for all things "Spanish-style". It became something else: a democratic counterpart to the country-house terrace, somewhere to sit in the sun, to drink and smoke, to argue about politics and contemplate adultery.

Patios feature in the Sixties novels of John Updike, in the pictures of David Hockney and, most famously, in the film, The Graduate, where Mr Robinson traps young Benjamin near the swimming pool to tell him that the future is in plastics. Mike Nichols's sly satire put the first cracks in suburban optimism, made concrete in the patio: David Lynch arrived later with the heavy equipment. In Britain we had no material excesses worth satirising.

Where the West Coast meant Minehead and a swimming pool was a place you went to get a verruca, the patio had to find a different point of entry. It arrived with replacement windows, in aluminium and later UPVC. And after windows, as anyone who has ever taken a step on that slippery slope will know, must come replacement doors. Wooden French windows had featured in some British houses since the suburban boom of the 1930s, but 40 years on they were rotten. The replacements were blank panes of sliding glass in aluminium frames. These "patio doors" were guaranteed "never to need painting", enough to ensure gleeful acceptance in the era before decorating became the leading television sport.

The French door had opened to a step and a path. The patio door had a vast opening that demanded the invention of the wide, flat British patio. Then all we needed was a use for it. The British had to learn to drink, and even eat, in the open air. Blame continental holidays, blame flights to America. Blame Australian soap operas. However it happened, the fire was lit, there was masses of BSE-free meat to throw on it, and sometimes there was even a bottle or two of Mateus Rose.

And with that the true nature of the patio was revealed. A flat surface, bathed in light, with entrances at side and back. People strutting around, making extravagant gestures and foolish declarations, talking too loud or suspiciously quietly: "She's drunk again... I don't know how he copes"; "Did you see those two?"; "You bastard!"; "Right, get your coat. We're going home." All the world's a stage, and so was the back garden at 123, Acacia Avenue.

The theatre associated with French windows had depicted civilised life being interrupted by people holding tennis rackets. Patio doors inverted that. Now people fled the stifling civility of indoors to live dangerously outside: "More wine?", "More chilli?" and "Has anyone seen my wife?" At the same time, some subversives paired up and went the other way: "I'm going to, er, find some crisps." "Oh, er, I'll help you."

The theatricality of the patio has made it a key motif in British film and television comedy, which rarely improves upon reality. In Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet, mother and daughters play out their mutual incomprehension on a stretch of blasted council-installed paving.

In Secrets and Lies, slightly higher up the food chain, the patio is big enough to contain a barbecue and a sit-down lunch - but not Brenda Blethyn's big secret. Pity and terror, or what we now know as embarrassment, leading to catharsis. With the neighbours looking on.

Theatre requires an audience, and in the space-efficient British suburbs, there is always an audience. For a private people, we are surprisingly willing to act out our primal drives over a plate of burnt meat and a warm beaker full of the South (African).

At night, however, the patio is a fine and private place, as the scriptwriters of Brookside explored so lengthily. No one in Coronation Street or EastEnders has a patio, for reasons of class. Neither has anyone in a middle-class sitcom, for reasons of budget (did we glimpse one in Castles?). But Brookside is set in real houses on a real estate where real concrete slabs are always being laid on the ground.

But what goes down, can come up, as Mandy and Beth discovered after they'd killed Trevor Jordache and offered him an unusual view of their new patio - from beneath. This was not Terence Rattigan, nor even Mike Leigh. The mood was Greek, and more Oresteia than retsina. The patio, a surface for social ritual, is not just a stage but an altar: and altars are full of dead bodies, though usually by arrangement.

For a killer with a waste-disposal problem, the patio has a lot to recommend it. It's heavy, solid, designed to look as if it has always been there. That's why it can cost as much as a car: it'll last longer. If there is a body under it, no one will know except the man who put it down and the policemen who dig it up.

Even tricked out with new, natural- look slabs and edged with coloured bricks, it remains first cousin to the Westway rather than something the nymphs and shepherds might have knocked together. No wonder the TV gardeners have moved away from rectilinear slabwork towards wooden decks, stepping stones and sawn-off railway sleepers.

That's one garden trend. The other is to surround your flat surface with walls and a roof, install electricity and heating, lay smart ceramic tiles and call it a conservatory. You'll want access to the garden, of course. French windows and a path sound a good idea.

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