A satire on the seediness of Middle England

The Thatcherites at least believed in work. The ideal now is a quick, something-for-nothing profit
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The Independent Online

For reasons that are not difficult to understand, satire on TV is pretty a much a stiff these days. Politicians are too smooth and slippery, the world they occupy too similar to that of the people who are trying to satirise them. It is true that Rory Bremner and the Johns Bird and Fortune occasionally have a pop at New Labour but, oddly, the more outraged and huffy they become, the less telling or funny the points that they make.

In the end, just as in the days before television was invented we had to make our own entertainment, we now have to make our own satire. Programme controllers and producers come up with the raw material, enabling the more intelligent viewers to chortle with knowing pleasure at its vulgarity and exploitative stupidity.

There has been a feast of self-satirising programmes of late, with the great obsessions of the age - property, charity nonsense, domestic life, celebrity, naff design values - all celebrated on screen with some gratifyingly amusing results. Now, thanks to BBC2, all the bases are covered in one glorious, embarrassing programme.

It is not necessary to watch The Million Pound Property Experiment to appreciate that here is a programme that social historians will study in order to understand the glitzy, money-obsessed seediness of Middle England in the early 21st century; the concept says it all. Two skittish interior designers, a couple called Justin Ryan and Colin McAllister, have been given money (our money) by the BBC to invest in and make over seven properties, the idea being to move up the property ladder to the million pound mark.

It has, in all senses but one, been a complete disaster, but every new setback and controversy has been greeted with shrieks of mirth from Justin and Colin. For - here's the full brilliance of the programme - it is all done for charity. It has become clear, over the past decade, that a charitable purpose can be deployed by TV producers as an excuse to air displays of egotism and ineptitude that would otherwise seem gratuitous and pointless. Here it provides the programme-makers with an answer to all criticism. "Our experiment said simply that we had to make as much money as we possibly could from these properties," Justin has said to the growing chorus of complaint from conservationists and property specialists who have questioned the values that the programmes have promoted.

The defence cleverly captures the mood of the moment. If the 1980s were, according to liberal opinion, a period in which financial self-interest was made respectable, today's ethic, glorified and exploited every day and night on TV, goes further. There is a housing shortage, a property boom, so it is the citizen's right to make as much easy cash out of the situation as possible. The Thatcherites at least believed in work; the ideal now is to trade the idea of a house as a home in favour of a quick, something-for-nothing profit. A huge industry has been built around this fantasy. Magazines pander to it. Lifestyle programmes gloss over the awkward facts that property-hopping does little for family happiness or security and that it often not the sure-fire money-maker that the dream-peddlers like to pretend.

Justin and Colin have, unwittingly, revealed what a sham the property fantasy can be. They have adhered to their brief, cutting every corner to make money, laying into old houses, one of which was Grade II listed, replacing original features with cheap and tacky alterations, ripping out sash windows. The behaviour that they have exemplified and excused is, according to the secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, "the equivalent of vandalism".

Another report has them attempting to evade stamp duty by the old, dodgy trick of over-valuing a house's fixtures and fittings. Yet none of this behaviour, nor increased supplies of license-payers' money, has produced anything more than marginal profits on the properties that have been bought and then messed up by the BBC.

As the disaster has unfolded, Justin and Colin have retained the good humour of a couple of professionals working with other people's money. Screamingly camp, as is now a requirement on this kind of programme, they reacted to a burst pipe that threatened to destroy an expensive kitchen floor by collapsing into a giggly fit. "Emergency plumbing is not our thing," said one. "Now emergency cushion-making - that we could do," said the other.

Exhibitionism, destruction, dodgy designs, financial jiggery-pokery and, to excuse it all, the ritual incantation of the world "charity": here is a rich feast of self-satire for the viewer, and a green light to anyone who fancies buying an old house and bashing it up in order to make a quick buck.

No one in the BBC probably worries too much about any of this for, in the one area that does concern the corporation, the programme seems to be a success. If you get the viewing figures, what else matters?

terblacker@aol.com

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