Horror music plays as the camera jumps between darkened shots of a house’s filthy interior – a kitchen piled high with years’ worth of washing up, a living room suffocating under a thick layer of dog hair – interspersed with screamed reactions to the mess – “eeeeeeep, Kim, there are MOUSE DROPPINGS in the CUTLERY DRAWER”.
The credits roll and we’re introduced to this week’s disgraced homeowner. An elderly woman named Pat perches happily atop a waist-high pile of rubbish engulfing what I have assumed to be her living room, although any furniture to evidence this suspicion has long since been lost.
“All this clutter you see, well it’s like a comfort zone,” Pat chuckles, unfazed by the fact that she is sitting on a literal mountain of junk. “A comfort zone – ooooh, ha, there’s a joke.”
The year is 2006, and this is How Clean is Your House? – a show surely up there with reality TV’s greats. This is an honour I don’t bestow lightly; having spent this summer, much like everybody I know, consumed by Love Island. When I wasn’t watching it, I was discussing it, reading about it, thinking about it.
The success of Love Island lies partly in the knowledge that you could never get on Love Island. Okay, maybe you wouldn’t want to, but that’s irrelevant. You wouldn’t belong, these aren’t normal people; they’re perfectly chiselled, beautifully made-up, immaculately groomed.
Like so much of today’s most popular reality TV – Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Made in Chelsea, TOWIE – Love Island is aspirational. Thirty-eight beautiful contestants, many of whom have paid to cosmetically alter their appearance, lounged in swimwear on daybeds as thousands of viewers complained on Twitter that watching made them feel fat.
But reality TV wasn’t always like this. Over six series between 2003 and 2009, the so-called Clean Queen, Kim Woodburn, and Dirt Detective, Aggie MacKenzie, visited some of Britain’s dirtiest homes; pulling at decades-old cobwebs, scrubbing away at inches of grime, making horrified faces at grungy toilets.
This was telly that didn’t make you feel bad about yourself – quite the opposite. Like Love Island and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, HCIYH offered a look at how the other half live, except viewers watched not with envy, but a bizarre fascination over other people’s filth.
That you couldn’t go on the show held a different meaning; you were too clean, too good. You could watch in horror, recoiling in disgust at the way other people could stand to live, feeling far less guilty about the coffee cups festering on your bedside table. Pat has bigger problems.
Too embarrassed by the state of her house to let the gasman in to service her boiler, the 64-year-old has been living without hot water for the past three years, says the narrator, as the camera pans to Pat sat at a sink, washing herself with a flannel.
“It’s insane,” says Pat, truly speaking for the nation, “absolutely insane.”
Kim and Aggie arrive, faces predictably agog as they hoist one another over the rubbish blocking the doorway. Neither, without getting too MailOnline about it, is dressed to tackle one of Britain’s filthiest homes: one in a smart grey suit, the other a cobalt blue skirt and blazer, with pearls hanging from her neck and earlobes.
“What will they make of my kitchen?” Pat wonders. “They’ll be horrified, absolutely horrified.”
Pat isn’t wrong.
“Aggie, I’m going to tell you this for nothing,” Kim says, pushing her way into the kitchen. “I’m so horrified, I don’t know what to say”.
Which is fair enough, given the floor and work surfaces are piled high with empty packets, mould-covered dishes and other clutter. Aggie screams as they spot silverfish – an insect that Kim knowingly claims can go up your knickers – swimming on what appears to have once been the innards of a microwave.
The more you see of Pat’s living arrangement, the more horrified you become. Yet the more you hear from Pat, the more you can’t help but like her.
The pensioner had a stroke a decade ago, and says what fell on the floor during her subsequent year of recovery is still there, albeit now long buried. Then, having experienced three loved ones dying in a year, Pat says she was thrown into autopilot. It is not for her sake, but that of her three aging dogs struggling to climb over the homemade assault course, that she has called on Kim and Aggie.
The viewer is no longer judging Pat, but cheering her on. Rooting for her as she gets teary-eyed and sobs “stiff upper lip, stiff upper lip – I’m British!” into a hanky when the first skip-load of her belongings is carted off. Rooting for her as she marvels in awe at Kim teaching her how to dust a table. Rooting for her as Aggie – who once worked for MI6 – does The Science Bit, solemnly announcing that one plate in Pat’s kitchen alone was harbouring more bacteria than a toilet seat.
But most of all, we’re rooting for Pat as she repeatedly proclaims “ooh – lovely! Oooooh, look at that! Lovely! Ooooh, doesn’t it look lovely! Just lovely!” as she’s shown around her newly cleaned home.
A fortnight later, having got her a gasman in to sort the hot water, Kim and Aggie return to check up on Lovely Pat. The two offer frankly undeserved praise, seemingly overjoyed that she hasn’t managed to amass another ten years’ worth of crap in the past two weeks.
“It’s freedom,” Lovely Pat chuckles. “I feel like Braveheart. Ooooh, freedom!”
This, Lovely Pat chortling away at herself as Kim and Aggie leave, this is the ultimate feel-good reality TV. This summer, Love Island united a nation in gossip – drawing in 4.1 million viewers at its peak. But ten years ago, 5.1 million Britons tuned into How Clean is Your House, united in disgust, fascination, a desire to see a lovely pensioner’s life change, and a satisfying sense of feeling better about themselves.
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.