Nick Knowles: DIY SOS is more than just a TV show, I never get used to seeing what it means to those affected

“The Purples” and their builders have completed £15 million worth of work – but how do they choose who to help?

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Nick Knowles has just completed the “reveal” at the end of another intensive construction for DIY SOS: the Big Build, and he knows the fatigue is showing. 

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“Knackered,” he agrees, happily, “but in jubilation. We do five months’ work in nine days. Volunteer builders often tell us they think at first we must cheat in some way, and then they find out we don’t.”

A short distance away, Rachel Pollard is also looking tired, although her husband Dave is buzzing in the April sunshine. This time theirs is the family home that has been revolutionised – Dave will say later that he only recognises the small terraced house in south Bristol where the couple have raised their four children over the past 30 years because his neighbours’ gardens are still there. And yet this is very far from the biggest transformation the Pollards have undergone. 

In 2012 their 19-year-old son Ryan was diagnosed with a blocked ventricle in his brain. During surgery he suffered catastrophic brain damage and spent eight months in intensive care before being transferred to a rehab centre in Gloucester. Severely disabled, he was unable to go home because the Pollards’ house was not equipped for him, so every weekday since then Rachel has made the four-hour round trip to Gloucester by public transport.

Neighbours Jean and Colin Blackmore were among the many to contact DIY SOS about the family. “We used to see them all the time,” says Jean, 67. “But normal family life became extinct for them.”

Series producer Hamish Summers has been in touch with the Pollards every other day since their participation was confirmed last December. “We get up to 5,000 applications a year, hundreds of which meet the criteria,” he explains. “Choosing who to help is very hard. The family must be desperate, at the end of their tether, with nowhere else to turn.

“We check their bank accounts to make sure they haven’t got £50,000 put away. As is standard on TV, they cannot have a criminal record. We can’t do two families from the same area inside one year, and we can never do any builds within the M25 because the logistics are a nightmare.

“We’re investigating about 40 stories at any one time, to see if it can work. We meet the family, recce the area and community, scrutinise the local space available to accommodate this building ‘circus’. We find out exactly what’s needed by the family, get the occupational therapist to liaise with our designers, and check if it can be done in nine days. The worst part is ringing families to say we can’t come – for every seven builds, we let down around 20 people. There are always tears.”

When DIY SOS began in 1999 it was half-an-hour’s fun about righting DIY disasters. It was only in 2008 – after floods in the North – that it began to change. In 2010 it morphed into The Big Build, recruiting friends and local trades to help those seriously in need, with ever more complex builds involving extensions and loft conversions. By the end of recording the latest series in April, 71 such transformations had been broadcast, including their most ambitious in 2015, when Princes William and Harry helped convert a row of houses in Manchester for injured service veterans. The 9.6 million viewing figure was the biggest to date. 

One constant has been “the Purples” – purple shirt-clad presenter Knowles, builder Julian Perryman, plasterer Chris Frediani, electrician Billy Byrne (all of whom have been on the team since the start) and build manager Mark Millar, who joined in 2006.

Once a family is chosen, the call goes out through local news outlets, builders’ merchants and social media for trade volunteers. Far more offer their services than can be used, even though BBC editorial policy dictates that no business can gain from participation, not even by posting a video on their company website. 

In Bristol, 74 electrical companies volunteered, with the firms most local to the Pollards selected. Others turn up on spec. Marion Boyland, 68, drove from 40 minutes away. “I just wanted to help, so I was here for 12 hours making tea.” Electrician Steve Pollard, 62, is Ryan’s uncle. “The whole experience is so much more than I ever realised – people helping, just doing good.”

Local firefighter Jon Mayo volunteered for nine days’ labouring. “We usually see people on the worst day of their lives,” he said. “So to be part of this is fantastic.”

Yet even on the biggest day – the “reveal” – the juggernaut is rolling on. By the time the Pollards’ Bristol build is screened this week, two more will be complete, with another four in the pipeline. “The BBC powers that be called us in once to query what we were offering the companies who volunteer, because no one does anything for free,” says Knowles. “But you know what? They do. So a plasterer gives us three days of his time – that’s three days he hasn’t earned, which is probably the cost of the diesel for his van next month. It’s amazing. 

“We’ve done almost £15 million of work now, and I never get used to seeing what it means to those affected. A lot of TV is about poking people to get an emotional reaction. Here the emotion is born out of effort and circumstance. It’s an odd fish in a transient industry, because it’s heartfelt and meaningful. But it’s more than just a TV show now, and we’ll keep on doing it for as long as anyone commissions us.” 

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DIY SOS: the Big Build is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC1