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Restoration tragedy?

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Anything that increases public awareness of the plight of Britain's neglected buildings has got to be good, right?

Claire Melhuish thinks the subject deserves better than the mishmash of celebrity endorsement and populism that characterises the BBC's Restoration

SPAB scholar Marianne Shur, who co-presents BBC2's new Restoration series with fellow scholar Ptolemy Dean and household name Griff Rhys Jones, believes that anything that can be done to popularise the historic building debate is worthwhile - even, it would seem, appearing on an embarrassing Pop Idol-format programme like this. Shur and Dean, in their hard hats, make the classic 'odd couple', with a passion for old buildings, in counterpoint to the relative glamour of Rhys Jones and his bevy of flown-in celebrity campaigners such as Lloyd Grossman, Richard E Grant and Martin Bell.

Restoration is a 10-week series that will highlight the plight of three at-risk historic buildings a week, inviting the public to phone in and vote for the one they would like to see saved, and make a donation. In the grand finale, one building will emerge as the most popular, just like the victorious Big Brother participant, and claim the prize: the cost of restoration and rehabilitation. The programme maker, Endemol, has mobilised an enormous team of researchers during the past year to identify and select buildings from every area of the country, according to a strict list of criteria. For example, they must be in public ownership, and there must be a potential end use in sight. Shur says the commitment has been impressive, although the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was not itself involved in the selection procedure. But then programme makers these days are not keen on expert opinion. The real agenda is mass-market appeal, and for that you need household names and screen appeal, not scholarship.

According to SPAB, Shur and Dean were recruited 'for their vast combined knowledge of UK building styles and techniques', but the real deciding factor was the screen test, resulting in a caricature. Shur comes across as the steady, feet-on-the-ground, goodhousekeeping female foil to Dean's absurdist young-fogey character, sketchbook in hand.

He rambles on in a laughably posh accent about romantic ruins - 'the way nature reclaims the work of man in its decay the building is so beautiful, poignant and romantic' - interjected with plenty of 'goshes', 'Good Gods', 'lovely stuff ', and a few slightly patronising comments directed towards the 'little woman' at his side: 'Males First Class (at the entrance to Victoria Baths, Manchester) - that means you can't come in here, Marianne and I'm not quite sure what a Second Class Male is.' Marianne, from regional Bristol, sticks to objective technical assessment, carefully explaining the mechanics of a cantilevered staircase (at Bank Hall), against the backdrop of a building that apparently could collapse 'at any moment.'

In the meantime, Rhys Jones - who admittedly has some experience in these matters, having helped to raise the £15 million required to restore the Hackney Empire theatre in London - flits around outside the buildings (no hard hat required), looking rather windswept, and opining on the importance of 'heritage'. Many of these buildings are beautiful, he says, but all are important, because they are listed. They have stories to tell, and they are at risk. The mission of this programme is to uncover this state of affairs, and restore a bit of our heritage - but what makes this unique is that 'you have the chance to save these buildings from being lost for ever'.

Is this really good for the historic building debate? And what does it say about the state of architecture on TV in general? As we all realise, there is more architecture being presented on TV now than ever before, largely due to the vast increase in airtime resulting from the digital revolution. Programmers are desperate for material, but they don't want to pay for it. TV is repackaged as a democratic rather than an educational medium, legitimising an explosion of the reality TV format, in which 'ordinary', 'mass market' viewers are enticed into a participatory role as the object of the public gaze. And architecture has suddenly found a niche in this scenario, because buildings, especially homes, provide the settings for the more private and intimate activities of human behaviour.

Architecture is not easy to present on TV.

Buildings are multi-dimensional, and cameras constantly distort space and perspective, while they rarely capture any sense at all of spatial sequence. As a result it is much easier to focus on material details, or on people talking about buildings. In common with most architecture programmes, Restoration sets out to give 'personality' to the buildings it presents, relying heavily on human-interest stories to build up the narrative. Thus at Bank Hall we have Mary Grimshaw, the servant's niece who witnessed the arrival of the Aga Khan in 1928. At Victoria Baths, it's Sunny Lowry, the young female swimming champion now in her 90s, and, at Brackenhill near Carlisle, a hoary descendant of the 'reevers' who historically made this area, known as the Debatable Lands, a no-go area to outsiders.

These are the ordinary people, exposing themselves to the public gaze, with whom we are supposed to identify, as part of the BBC's democratic, mass-market audience. But, at the same time, the insistence on headlining such programmes with real 'personalities' (mediated by the 'funny couple', the experts), fundamentally undermines the democratic imperative, emphasising a deeply embedded contemporary social hierarchy where the visibly successful and wealthy always take precedence in terms of profile and privilege, at the expense of real knowledge and authenticity. Furthermore, it is a role predicated on the idea that public adulation and emulation always follow. So, Lloyd Grossman admirers will vote for Bank Hall, as he praises 'that romantic vision of Britain that's thrilling to look at', Richard E Grant fans for Victoria Baths ('you can get fit, flirt or snog someone'), and Martin Bell devotees for Brackenhill ('vote for blackmail!') None of this really has much to do with architecture - just as, in his recent programmes on Iraq, Dan Cruickshank the architectural historian became repackaged as Dan the slightly eccentric British war correspondent, or, in another case, Channel 4 refused to take a series on British churches, produced by rdf media, unless it was presented by Simon Jenkins (admittedly the author of the book on which it was based, but also an acceptable household name).

Kevin McCloud has made a career out of presenting architecture on TV, partly by virtue of his own vivacious screen personality, but also because he focussed on emotional self-build stories, offering compulsive viewing.

Maybe, in the light of this state of affairs, we should welcome a reduction in architecture programming on TV, taking heed of Baudrillard's scorching criticism (The Consumer Society, 1970) of mass-media culture, with its 'pathetic hypocrisy of the minor news item', and 'pathetic redundancy of signs'. Baudrillard suggests that all 'mass' culture today 'is not culture, but cultural recycling.' In other words, cultural consumption may be defined as 'the parodic evocation of what already no longer exists.'

The apparent 'celebration' of architecture on TV may then be better understood as a caricature, or parody, of the original, authentic event - which is certainly the impression given by a series such as Restoration.As Baudrillard says, 'it exalts signs on the basis of a denial of things and the real.'

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