A nightmare vision from Smillie's people

Who wants a purple and lime green property? Home-improvement television programmes leave a lot to be desired, says Felicity Cannell

AS A NATION, we spend our leisure time trawling the aisles of DIY stores, gazing through estate agents' windows or sitting in front of the television. So it is hardly surprising that there are more and more property programmes on the box.

Most of them concentrate on home improvement and interior design - Changing Rooms, Real Rooms, Change That - leaving more serious issues to the Money Programme or "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries.

The current trend seems to be for an unfortunate game show format. Changing Rooms - where neighbours swap houses for two days and makeover one room in each house - is useful for ideas and responsible for substantial sales of MDF(medium density fibreboard), but that's not why it is watched. It is watched for two reasons: the first is Carol Smillie; the second is the hope that embarrassment, horror and total breakdown will feature somewhere.

The programme starts with the inevitable comments: "any colour as long as it isn't purple", or "the very worst that could happen is they take out my cocktail bar" ... and guess what happens?

Of course it's not really the neighbours who are making the decisions. Well, they make decisions which are then totally ignored by the interior designers, some of whom need a bit of interior designing themselves. In the brain. Lawrence, a Jason King for the Nineties with velvet frock coat and floppy cuffs, seemed to be on the wrong show. Velcro may be a useful product on the Clothes Show, but surely not for fasteners on the kitchen cupboards.

Some of the changes are imaginative - like creating a fake flagstone floor with a latex compound. Others are downright silly - one participant asks for "a lot of original features": dado, picture rail, coving, cherubs. Original? In a 1980s semi?

Lime green and purple also feature a lot - preferably mixed up in one big technicolour yawn. No safe beige or cream here, but whatever aberrations have been inflicted, there are always tears of joy and hugs and kisses all round at the end.

The lovely Lawrence can now be seen on Change That, a morning DIY roadshow which claims to give a new twist to TV makeovers as furniture, fabrics and fittings get a dramatic change of image. Lawrence, still looking as if he's on the wrong show, "dramatically" turns an old black cast-iron mangle into an old blue cast-iron mangle.

"I really like blue. It was the happening colour at Chelsea for outdoor accessories." The Flower Show or the Football Club? This show has a studio audience, giving new meaning to the phrase "as exciting as watching paint dry".

As well as Lawrence, almost the entire cast of Changing Rooms pops up at some time, except for the one person who keeps it at prime time - Carol Smillie.

Change That has taken the place of Real Rooms, now being repeated on BBC2 at 4pm. Real Rooms "tackles the nation's decorating problems". Does day-time television differ at all from prime-time TV, or is it all part of the "dumbing down" process?

Real Rooms has more to offer than Changing Rooms (apart, of course, from Carol Smillie). The designers tend more towards normality and, unlike Changing Rooms victims, the participants are going to get what they want, while the viewers are given practical DIY tips. And a room renovation is far more interesting than a chair or table (or even a mangle) renovation.

The result still produces the hugs, kisses and tears, but perhaps that's the emotion inspired by having survived three days with an entire television crew in the house.

Prime evening spot is held by Homefront. The programme showed innovation with its junior decorator of the year competition, resulting in some spectacular extravaganzas such as a tropical island, a James Bond bachelor pad and a baroque theme. These kids could teach Lawrence a thing or two.

As well as fluffy, frothy interiors ideas - how many garishly painted storage baskets can you fit into one wardrobe? - the programme covers more serious issues such as the danger of lead paint when redecorating old houses and what to do about it. Plus the very serious issue of how to have a picnic when it's raining - an indoor picnic trolley, complete with growing grass.

One of the weakest attempts to cash in on the home front/ game show combination is the dreadful Househunters. Three couples are shown, on video, the interior and exterior of a house. The idea is to guess the price. This isn't a test for budding estate agents, it's multiple choice. Or maybe that is pretty similar to estate agency, after all. Pick a figure and add 10 grand.

The format for this show may have come from Channel 5's Hot Property which is closest to an all-round property show, but not close enough. Hot Property sells your house over the television. A purchaser is shown a property suitable to his or her needs and "the experts" then go in and pull it apart. Or so they say. In fact, they don't. Otherwise no one would offer up their houses.

In Hot Property there is rather too much of the vendors' amateur attempts to sell their homes to us. The professional estate agents fail even more dismally. The programme, which leaves you feeling that you are doing a virtual reality tour from the agent's office, would benefit from a more artistic approach. Viewers don't want to buy the place. They just want interesting and entertaining viewing.

There is massive potential and enough viewing time to cover any property issue successfully - after all, almost all viewers over the age of 18 have an interest whether they are landlords or tenants, buyers or sellers, self builders or budding property developers - but we are still waiting to see that vision fulfilled.

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