Monday, March 7, 2011

Back to the old house

Normally I don't post things here that have been commissioned for elsewhere, but I thought I'd make an exception in this case because this short piece hasn't appeared online. It's from the last issue of Icon and is a review of the recent Channel 4 series The Room That Made Me. Incidentally, the latest issue of Icon is out now featuring, amongst other things, a short rant by me about The Sunday Times. Anyway, here 'tis. 

“Imagine going back to the house where you grew up”, said the portentous voiceover to this four-part TV series, “and finding everything exactly as it used to be”. Frankly this happens to me every Christmas, but for the participants of this programme life had clearly moved on, at least in a literal sense.

The House That Made Me was a curious mix of childhood nostalgia, pop psychoanalysis and interior design history. Like a home makeover programme in reverse, it recreated the former homes of various British celebrities, aiming to trigger a Proustian rush of association or elicit fresh insight into their complex psyches.

Four celebrities of diminishing renown took part with very differing results, mostly depending on their current state of mind. In both former pop star Boy George and disgraced TV presenter Michael Barrymore’s case this clearly wasn’t good. Their much-publicised personal traumas and involvement in pretty unsavoury events meant that both appeared to be looking for some kind of redemption.

For people of Boy George’s age, the long shadow of 1970’s interior design allowed some easy laughs at clashing geometric wallpaper and star-burst clocks, not to mention an overabundance of ash trays and elaborate drinks dispensers. But there were more interesting stories to be found too. The role of technology in the home, for example, was telling. For Boy George it was his Dansette record player, for Barrymore his prog-rock synthesiser and for R&B singer Jamelia it was watching MTV that made home-life bearable. Each of these offered a kind of portal, a route out of typical teenage lives to something far more exciting.

They also revealed a subtle territorial battle acted out within the family home. Comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar’s front room was largely out-of-bounds to the children, a sacrosanct space for entertaining guests only. The level of his parent’s self-effacing hospitality was also revealed by the presence of tricksy cigarette dispensers and a drinks cabinet hidden in a globe, despite the fact that they neither drank nor smoked.

Surprisingly, Bhaskar was the most interesting participant. His childhood in 1970’s West London was overshadowed by the rise of the National Front and the racially motivated riots in nearby Southall. He revealed a touching friendship with the white family who ran the fish’n’chip shop next door, an unlikely pair of surrogate parents with whom he would sit day after day eating bags of chips. His own home included a genuine Leopard skin mounted on the wall and various other stuffed animals including a crocodile, all squeezed into a tiny first floor flat.

There was an aspect of the homes that wasn’t mentioned at all though, a (non-stuffed) elephant in the room. This was the sticky issue of class. The recreated rooms revealed something very specific about the participant’s background and the relationship of social class to housing. Revealingly, all the participants came from working or lower-middle class backgrounds. This was evident not simply in the size of their house or the number of children sharing a bedroom, but in the way the rooms were laid out and the expectations of how people behaved in them. There were very few books or ‘high’ cultural objects in evidence and decorative objects tended to be cheap, mass-produced items like the ubiquitous ‘crying-boy’ painting. Furniture was predominantly new rather than inherited and all of it was thrown out when interior fashions changed or the family moved house.

To talk of class in design and architecture is to invite charges of snobbishness. But to ignore it seems disingenuous, part of a wilful refusal to see the social and economic factors that shape our environments. Clearly these issues were too personal, or perhaps political for a programme as prurient as The House That Made Me, and they remained inferred rather than spelt out.