Aesthetically grim and aggressively budget, Changing Rooms is a British morality tale

Everything I learned from history’s most human makeover show.

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The year is 2000. Fragments of china lie strewn – like so many hopes and dreams – across the floor of a flat in Wandsworth. Linda Barker stands with her hands on her hips, the tassels on her denim jacket a-droop.

I am eleven years old. Too young, many might say, for the agony and the ecstasy of a TV programme like Changing Rooms. But here I am, eyes to the fat-backed telly, my prepubescent brain wrestling with the gravity of what I have just witnessed. Television’s Linda Barker, who until this point I would’ve trusted with my life, has just destroyed a woman’s entire collection of antique teapots.

It started with an idea. A “floating” shelving unit. Handy Andy (or Handrew Andrew, as my dad insists on calling him) warned against it. But Barker pressed on; the importance of her vision – in her own twisted mind – outweighing all else. It ended with Hindenburg-level destruction. Oh, the humanity. Or as they probably say in the interior design world: “Oh, the huge mantelpiece”.

The BBC’s Changing Rooms debuted in 1996, and the final episode was in 2004. The pure human drama of the show aside, it happened to fall within (and contribute to) the most aesthetically grim era since the invention of the codpiece.

Inflatable furniture. Statement walls. Beige. The late Nineties to early 2000s was a terrifying time to be a room, let alone one that was being changed. With a budget of about nine quid, celebrity “designers” – including paisley-shirted velour merchant Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen – would gut a knackered Forties semi and make it… a strange sort of beautiful.

These transformations were nothing if not mesmerising. Llewelyn-Bowen in particular had a knack for making homeowners cry by turning their slightly boring but perfectly functional bungalow in Cheltenham into a cross between the London Dungeon and an Ann Summers.

The man. Liked. Columns. Corinthian, Doric, you name it; as long as it was made of papier-mâché and had something draped over it, he would drop it in the middle of your avocado bathroom and take the theatrical bow of a man who has conquered.

Waiting for a Changing Rooms participant’s reaction to a Llewelyn-Bowen interior was my first taste of the meaty kind of stress that comes with adulthood. It wasn’t long before the show I only started watching because I had a crush on Carol Smillie had become addictive for completely non-Carol Smillie reasons.

“There’s no way I can sleep in here,” says one bowtie-clad Llewelyn-Bowen victim. “I’ll have too many erotic dreams.” His bedroom walls are now murals of female nudes, female nudes and female nudes:

If Nicolae Ceaușescu’s sprawling presidential palace had a sex room, it definitely looked exactly like this. Llewelyn-Bowen did dictator chic for cheap, which – in this age of austerity and despots – is one of the many, many arguments for Changing Rooms being rebooted. Others being, “it would be funny” and “I’d like to see Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s take on millennial pink”.

In the ultimate example of Changing Rooms belonging to a simpler, happier time, in 2000 it was considered newsworthy when someone on the show cried. Which was a lot. In this particular example – reported by the Telegraph – a Lib Dem councillor from Alnwick and her husband reduced a designer to tears by calling her handiwork “crap”. Take that, Game of Thrones Red Wedding episode.

From its mildly jazzy saxophone theme tune (I just listened to it on YouTube and I can confirm it still fills me with excitement and dread) to its many, many cock-ups, Changing Rooms was a deeply British makeover show. What it lacked in both the glamour and the budget of its American counterparts, it made up for with its down-to-earth shiteness.

As a nation, we looked on in horror at those shards of teapot. But we also learned about the dangers of hubris. Linda Barker laughed in the face of gravity, and look where she ended up. Our very own Icarus, her jacket tassels flailing as she plummeted to earth.

Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.

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