The Repair Shop and Money for Nothing – BBC public service broadcasting at its best

Two programmes I really admire are Money for Nothing and The Repair Shop, both on BBC One. I’m not sure how to apportion credit, but Field Kean Films produces Money for Nothing and Ricochet produces The Repair Shop.

Steven Fletcher works on a toy battleship in The Repair Shop

Revealing a transformed armchair

Leanne reveals a transformed armchair to EJ in Money for Nothing

Money for Nothing is a about upcycling as social entrepreneurship. It always begins with Sarah Moore (sometimes Jay Blades or EJ Osborne) waylaying people at the boot of their car, intercepting objects they’re about to dispose of at their municipal tip. They can be lengths of fabric, old filing cabinets, chairs, sewage pipe, old wooden bowling balls – you name it. We find out the object’s story before she takes it away to a specialist artisan in her network, including Zoe Murphy who designs patterns in Margate, Jay Blades who makes furniture and may still be based in Wolverhampton, Bex Simon who’s a Guildford blacksmith, Rob Shaer who works with wood in Walthamstow, Chinelo who designs garments in Canning Town, and Anthony Devine who upholsters in Manchester. After negotiating a budget (materials and labour) for transforming the object into something saleable, she goes away again leaving the artisan with creative licence. Sarah works on one of the objects herself. Arthur Smith narrates satirically.

Each programme follows the decisions and subsequent work on three objects, nicely paced so by the time the last is intercepted at the tip we’re half way through the tranformation of the first. When each is completed, Sarah arrives with her van and there’s a dramatic reveal. She pays the artisan, takes the object away and markets it to vendors with premises or web shops. Then she returns to the original owner with an iPad to show them the transformation and, if the object has sold, she gives them all the profit which I’ve see range from a fiver to £200.

Money for nothing - Jay Blades passes profit to original owner

I find this format absolutely ingenious. All of the money seems to come from and go to the right places. Viewers see a demonstration of entrepreneurship (another word for initiative in one’s livelihood) as Sarah coordinates adding value to what was going to be landfilled or dismembered. While she is presumably paid by the BBC licence fee, the artisans’ work is paid for by people with the income to freely buy valuable bespoke pieces. Viewers watch respect and creative vision shown to junk everyone else had given up on. The original owner is delighted to be doorstepped with money conjured from nothing, and and more often than not a charity is the ultimate beneficiary. By intercepting objects from the tip the programme is saving local authorities (that’s tax payers) money on landfill tax and recycling. Viewers learn that almost nothing needs to go to the tip if you have access to skilled labour. And in a society which increasingly valorises science, technology, engineering and maths and diminishes the arts, viewers learn how inspiring and valuable the livelihoods of artisans can be.

On a similar theme but with a different perspective, The Repair Shop begins with people  bringing broken family treasures to a spacious workshop in the Weald and Downland Living Museum where Jay Blades triages them on a table and interviews their owners about the object’s history – this part is a combination of Antique’s Roadshow and Supervet. Each object is then allocated to one or more specialists for conservation and restoration. Steven Fletcher is a clockmaker, Suzie Fletcher works with leather. Lucia Scalisi conserves paintings, Kirstin Ramsay specialises in ceramics, William Kirk restores heirlooms, and Brenton West is a silversmith. They each work in sight of each other at their own station in the workshop. Like Money for Nothing there are three items, ranging from broken plates with grandparents’ portraits, an old aviator jacket from a relative gunned down in World War II, a battered silver purse owned by a beloved grandmother, a pouffe, and all manner of old clockwork including a copper rain gauge and a barometer that inks the air pressure onto a roll of graph paper. We follow the dilemmas and progress of the artisans as they dunk gunky clockwork in vats of cleaner, stabilise and repair fragile materials, steam clean ceramics, conserve flaking leather, create missing wheatsheafs for porcelain clock cases, and painstakingly match paint. As with Money for Nothing, the objects are staggered so each is at a different stage. Finally the owner returns, sometimes with their kids, and the restored object is unveiled for the next generation to inherit.

About to unveil a restored heirloom at The Repair Shop

This programme moves me deeply. Like Money for Nothing it’s a format that rescues objects that appear to be beyond salvage, and lays bare the painstaking work of artisans past and present. The exquisite acts of restoration surface the intense love people have for their deceased family members; their yearning to save these pieces brings a generation-spanning perspective to every episode which is unfailingly moving. Unlike Money for Nothing there is no discussion of the value of these items, because they are destined to be treasured in the family and not be sold. The BBC has funded the restoration so that viewers can learn British history, and how things used to be made, and how they can be made anew. We learn the history of amateur climate science, world wars, and how everyday lives were led. We also learn techniques – that you need to apply shellac with a soft brush, what kind of stitch you need for which fabric, how to mix the right glue for the job, and how to apply it, test it, and what to do when it’s dried. You can see how to clean anything, stabilise anything, and that it’s fine to wear two pairs of spectacles at once.

Badly damaged leather pouffe

Before I finish this, I want to talk about Brexit, a hugely divisive era which threatens to impoverish this society and throw us back on our reserves. Right wing Brexit supporters look forward to this because they believe that younger people today lack grit and initiative. They think they are in need of a salutary dose of adversity to bring out their mettle. Necessity is the mother of invention, they think. I don’t see things that way, but I see these two programmes appeal across the political spectrum for reasons which transcend politics. In Money for Nothing there is no moralising at all, but I see the inheritance of a financial crisis expressed as a sort of providential scavenging (environmentalists bring their own subtexts). In the enormous popular appeal of the The Repair Shop I see another sort of prudence embraced by a society that has become interested, late in the day, in conserving the last relics of the British Empire – its science, the glory it took in its victories, the artefacts it manufactured with its spending power.

I find it poignant that these objects are usually deposited by people whose families had a long enough history in this country to have benefited – if by default – from its extractive capitalism in other lands, and were able to accrue a few treasures to pass on. I can’t help noticing that all the energy in this programme is dedicated to easing their pain. And yet those objects may be restored by an artisan whose forebears could conceivably have experienced the degradations of the Empire.

Money for Nothing deploys vision, skill and graft to convert junk discarded by older people into profit which it then returns to them – which I find symbolic of austerity and perhaps of a gentle education. In the Repair Shop, heirlooms of immense emotional significance become labours of love carried out by sensitive and empathetic strangers. Very deftly and tacitly, these programmes look to me like social cohesion.

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