NOTnothing great is going on in The Repair Shop, an utterly commendable TV show in which nice men and women bring loved ones but damaged items to a team of equally nice craftsmen who will fix them up and make them like new . At the start of each show, we see an old thatched barn as the reassuring voice of Bill Paterson sets the scene. It is a place where “precious and faded treasures regain their former glory”; where the “heritage trades handed down from generation to generation” are carried out; a place where, not least, the conversation between owners and restaurateurs “opens the story” inside each object.
Inside the barn, the craftsmen are already at work: sanding, sawing, sewing, stuffing, browning, painting, welding, hammering, chasing. The barn is quite real. It was built around 1700 for a farm in Hampshire and moved 40 years ago to the Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex, where the series is being shot. But like in real barns, the repair shop is exceptionally smart, its sturdy wooden frame, pristine reed thatch, and beautifully lit interior.
There is a slight suggestion from Hansel and Gretel or even Wagner. Something mythical. The barn sits among the trees. No cars or roads are visible. The clients, three or four in each episode, walk like pilgrims along the stony paths that meander to the front door, where they show their shattered memories to the head of the workshop, Jay Blades, who wears glasses. with a thick frame and a distinctive (because permanent) fabric cap. The object is unpacked and Blades, a cabinet maker and community worker by trade, enlists one of the salon’s specialists – a furniture restorer, for example, or a lint repairer – for advice on how to fix it. to fix. It could be an accordion that no longer squeezes, a rocking horse that no longer sway, a ventriloquist’s dummy with its mouth closed, a stained watercolor, a stopped clock, a steamer half made of matches, a model of a locomotive. minus three of its wheels. Britain has a cornucopia of damaged goods.
After a diagnosis, the object is collected, much like a patient. Blades shakes hands with the client and promises to see him soon. No more sanding, sewing and soldering ensues. Words are few.
“Hello, Will, check this out,” Jay said.
“Brilliant!” said Will.
Nobody shows up; everyone behaves with dignity. It’s not the real world. These dedicated artisans never break a promise, never say, “It’s 300 pounds VAT included, but I’ll take 100 € if we’re talking cash.” Money never needs to be mentioned. Salaries are paid by the production company (Ricochet, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) which produces the series for the BBC. Nonetheless, in their reluctance and friendship, the workers at The Repair Shop seem closer to mainstream life than the average reality TV cast. Or at least closer to ordinary life as some of us like to imagine – where once was and could be again – that is to say more collaborative than competitive, less selfish and less greedy.
In Antiques Roadshow, the luckiest participants gasp when told the value of what they are holding in their hand. The repair shop customers are spiritual in comparison. “Incredible!” they say when the fabric is removed from their remodeled heritage. “How good it looks.” If only Uncle Bill could have seen it, he would have been so happy. Wisely, the creators of the program decided against a notion, raised at an early planning meeting, that a coin’s value would be estimated before and after restoration. Profit on the one hand and good memories of Uncle Bill on the other (it was his plush crocodile, after all) don’t sit comfortably together.
I like the repair shop. I love the shots of trees, pastures, ponds and birds that overlap the scenes inside the barn. I love the absence of cars, the light pizzicato of the soundtrack (a sure sign that nothing bad can happen), the seductive artifice that created the William Morris utopia in West Sussex. Millions of us watch it. A show that started in early 2017 as a cheap half-hour series for BBC2 daytime schedules now has a 60-minute slot during the evening rush hour on BBC1. More than 250 episodes of varying lengths have been produced (some have yet to be broadcast) and 50 others are in different stages of production. The new episodes (the reruns are numerous) reach on average between 3 and 4 million audiences. The formula has been sold in half a dozen countries. “Great stories, told profitably” was the basis of the sales pitch.
We come to the case of crying. Another reason to love The Repair Shop is that no one on the show, to my knowledge, has asked the question that television journalism currently finds compelling. “How did you feel when… your cancer was diagnosed / your little girl died / your house disappeared in the tsunami?” The tears over this show come spontaneously. Some customers have tears in their eyes and some don’t, and so must the public.
In a September episode, Pamela from Devon arrived with a chipped and discolored music box in which almost no moving parts were functioning. It looked like a souvenir from Venice, mid-20th century in its style and attractive in its shameless memory. Pamela’s older sister Vera was the original owner until her death 50 years ago at the age of 15 from a long illness. The two girls had been close; for years they shared a room. The music box was a reminder of her sister and the fun they had had. The only reminder, in fact, because everything else in Vera had been destroyed in a terrible fire that ravaged the house some time later.
A terrible tragedy had been revealed in a few sentences. Two craftsmen, Will Kirk and Steve Kember, got down to work on the box and restored it beautifully, so that when Pamela returned to the barn, she could open the lid and hear Around the World in 80 Days. She said it was “amazing” and “amazing” and “thank you very much”, but luckily she didn’t cry. There comes a time when tears can feel like exploitation, both of the subject and its audience. When the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell read of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, he allegedly threw away the book in disgust, shouting: “You shouldn’t have killed her!Dickens had made it too thick. Television can do the same.
Pamela didn’t cry, but me. Something capricious, capricious, weeping, and never to be confused with a guarantee of sincerity or depth of feeling. A certain combination of music, words and pictures can bring it. I haven’t cried at any of my parents’ funerals, and yet I can cry at several points in It’s a Wonderful Life, most notably in its final moments, when James Stewart reads the inscription in Tom Sawyer’s copy that Clarence’s. Angel gave. him: “Remember that no man is a failure who has friends.” Clarence the angel! Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been wiped out just eight months before Frank Capra began filming in 1946; Belsen had been released exactly one year earlier; as a bomber pilot, Stewart himself had helped raze German towns as late as 1944.
Covid will likely cancel our seasonal excursion to see It’s a Wonderful Life this year, but The Repair Shop has a Christmas special (low promise) on BBC1 next Friday. The sometimes tearful pleasure of escaping in difficult times is common to both.