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  1. Culture
2 July 2015

Are posh people filthier than us? Yes – but their stories matter, too

I wondered if there had ever been a lover. Had her parents been kind? When she cared for her ailing father, who had dominated whom?

By Rachel Cooke

Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners
Channel 4

In the bedroom of a large Georgian country house in Flintshire, north Wales, a woman, stout of frame and heavy of jaw, reaches into a pile of . . . what? Let us call it, for the sake of politeness, a pile of stuff. Yes, there may be a few dead mammals here and – beside that old typewriter and this prototype of the Etch A Sketch – a basket stuffed to the brim with human hair. But still, it counts as stuff, her stuff, accumulated over the course of decades. Into this pile her stubby hand goes and, lo, out it comes: a copy of Country Life, dated 1974. Inside is her photograph, taken when she was 21 and the talk of all the county. She smiles at it. Around her neck are pearls. Her hairstyle makes her look a tiny bit like Vivien Leigh.

Her guests – visitors have dared to stray into this crazed realm – gaze on in amazement. Is this really her? The person in the picture and the one kneeling on the filthy carpet don’t match. Temporarily chastened, they cease crashing round in their protective boiler suits, plastic face masks and rubber gloves; for a moment, they put down their vacuum cleaners. The air is heavy now, not with dust but with sadness. In the turning of a page, their hostess, whose name is Tiggy, has morphed from witch to lost soul. When they resume working, it is with fresh determination. The purge will continue but the cleanliness and order it will create won’t just help to sell a grand house; their hope is that it may even restore Tiggy to herself.

Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners: it doesn’t sound promising, does it? And yet, the first episode of the new series of this weird Channel 4 show (30 June, 8pm) was so plangent, a Great Expectations for the 21st century. The drill this time is that our obsessive compulsives take their laborious cleaning rituals and phobias (dust, spiders, cats) to the houses of posh people, which could do with sprucing up (or burning to the ground). Are posh people filthier than the rest of us? Yes. It’s awfully middle class to worry about dirt. But perhaps they, too, are suffering from OCD, of which hoarding is another symptom. Tiggy thinks that only wusses make a fuss on finding, say, a crusty bit of cat vomit on a bedspread. But she wept when Vinny, who uses an electric toothbrush to clean his hob, and Denise, who won’t even allow her boyfriend to penetrate the sterile zone that is her bedroom, accused her of laziness in the matter of domestic hygiene. Her sloth set in after her father died. Somehow, the house got away from her, just as life did. “It’s regrettable,” said Sir James, her baronet brother. His voice, for all its plummy entitlement, seemed to be moving over eggshells.

In home movies, made when Tiggy was a girl, Top-y-Fron Hall was idyllic, a place to frolic. But she had never managed to leave. Marooned in its panelled grandeur, she had ossified. A full-scale breakdown threatened when Vinny and Denise, battling their own fears with the help of Cif and antibacterial handwash, cleared her bedroom without first asking what they might safely throw away. “My private room!” she shouted. Her face was congested with rage. She looked like an illustration in an old-fashioned book of cautionary tales. “I don’t cry about this!” she said. “I don’t!” And then: “That’s [my] childhood going away.”

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The film’s jaunty voice-over – “They don’t call posh people Lord and Lady Muck for nothing” – was beginning to sound rather tinny. I wondered if there had ever been a lover. Had her parents been kind? When she cared for her ailing father, who had dominated whom? Such questions were never answered. Ultimately, the shadows of Tiggy’s life were expected to make themselves scarce, just like the cat, whose bed was moved from Aga top to corridor. All we got before the titles rolled was an admission from the estate agents that, with several skips already filled, she might now be in with a chance of selling up – and the strong sense that mouse droppings really do get everywhere.

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