SSuch is the total state of this country that when I first saw the title of this series I assumed it was an understatement for Britain. As in: this is Worst House on the Street, a hard-hitting Channel 4 documentary about the UK housing crisis. Then set the tape – as my mum would say – for Sick Man of Europe, an unflinching look at our declining economy, how countries closed their borders one by one to UK air travel during the pandemic, and… you understand my drift. How sinister. But also, nice, Channel 4. What else should a public broadcaster do while the ideological – sorry, formal – process of selling it continues? You get the TV programming you deserve.
Then I googled the worst house on the street (channel 4). Oh. This is another real estate program. A place for the sun of 2022, if you will. The logical outcome of a situation where, even if you have a place in the sun – which you obviously don’t – you cannot get there because all flights are cancelled. And a place in the sun is deeply concerning as Europe is on fire. What does a nation that over generations has become infatuated with home ownership in such an end time need? A classic Channel 4 property program about how banging a £4,750 porch on the front of your ‘ultimate superior’ could add 2% to the value. In short, what the worst country in mainland Europe needs is the worst house on the street.
This distorted mirror held up to our broken society is presented by a heartbreaking sibling duo, Stuart and Scarlette Douglas. They have been renovating properties for 15 years and participated in George Clarke’s Flipping Fast, in which six rookie teams battled for a year to make the biggest profit on their properties. Which sounds as fun as finding asbestos in your ceiling. The Douglas duo look charming if it’s all a little gendered: they’re the deal maker when it comes to natural stone countertops; she makes the sensitive discussion about whether to opt for flat or custom built-in wardrobes blah, blah, blah. There are a few half-hearted attempts at sibling rivalry, but my level of cynicism is so high now that I wondered if they were even related in real life. They are and run an ambitious real estate design and development agency called Kindred Elite. Of course they do.
WHOTS is based on the adage that you buy the worst house on the best street if you want to maximize your profits. Or, find an escape from a real estate spectacle at a time of rising rents, house prices, wage freezes and affordable housing shortages. In this case, the worst house is a 1930s three-bed terrace in Purley, Croydon, which costs… £415,000. Which, to anyone outside of the sick man of Europe, is a perfect example not of getting a bargain, but of the mind-boggling extent of our housing crisis. And our bad faith.
Harry, a public affairs consultant, and Yimika, a marketing manager, are in their twenties. They recently married and put together every penny to buy the house, paid £15,000 more than the asking price and have been living with Yimika’s family for a year to save for renovations. We can only assume they must have canceled their Netflix subscription and put the kibosh on the takeout white dishes as well. Either way, they have “only” £40,000 to repair the wreckage and plan to move in in six weeks. Cue, jumping off the couch to yell at the TV, “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!”
The rest looks like bad graffiti printed on the peeling wallpaper of your moldy British soul. There is the near-disaster associated with the removal of a chimney breast. The discovery of, yes, asbestos in the ceiling. The incessant talk about maximizing budget, profit and light. The happy ending, in which three appraisals are made and, in direct opposition to reality, they made a profit of £32,000. And the mounting pressure on our young couple as the weeks drag on, the budget dwindles and the momentum of construction wanes. My favorite moment of unintended exposure of the patriarchy (most housing schemes have them hidden in the walls) comes when Harry gets lyrical about the spreadsheet they created by “automatically” calculating their expenses. “No, it doesn’t automatically,” Yimika said. “I insert numbers. “Oh,” said Harry. “Okay. Cool. Sorry.”
Look, I’m not sniffy about real estate programs or escapism. I understand it’s part of the British psyche to watch endless 24-hour episodes of A&E as the NHS is being dismantled. I have devoted my fair share of hours to Grand Designs over the centuries. I had a crush on Sarah Beeny in the 2000s, like everyone else. But when you can imagine the executives rubbing their hands around the table, the blue skies, off the beaten path, a series of properties for an age where frontline workers are deprived of their own homes in 98% of the country, you wonder if he hasn’t gone too far.