The Repair Shop: How a show about fixing antiques became a national obsession

No wonder Stephen Fry calls this comforting BBC2 show the best programme on British television says David Butcher

The Repair Shop (BBC)

You’d be surprised how often, when I meet someone socially and tell them where I work, their genuinely astonished response is, “Radio Times! Is that still going?”

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After grinding my jaw for a few seconds and salvaging a thin smile, I reply that yes, it is – and still thriving after 95 years, thanks for asking…

It’s a comment I get mostly in London, to be fair: elsewhere people are more tuned in. I was at a do in the West Country recently and gathered that several fellow guests were not just RT readers but devoted, cover-to-cover, wouldn’t-be-without-it readers. And when they’d finished enthusing about the magazine, they started telling me about the TV show they adored more than any other. It was, of course, The Repair Shop on BBC2.

If you haven’t discovered The Repair Shop yet, you need to seek it out on iPlayer. You really should, it’s a treat. The whole production radiates care and skill and warmth, like an enchanted hot water bottle of loveliness. It’s perfectly formed TV, full of nice people doing nice things, nicely. (“Balm for a frazzled world,” as one fan sighed on Twitter.)

I’ve liked it since previewing the very first episode, when I half-expected it to be another slightly contrived daytime-ish show mining a great British natural resource, antiques. What took me by surprise was how the show made a simple premise – people bringing their careworn family treasures to be fixed – into something ridiculously touching.

Like a lot of viewers, I can’t help getting dewy-eyed when the “reveal” arrives. Why is there a lump in my throat watching a couple return to a thatched barn in Sussex to collect their old rocking horse, or carriage clock, or piano stool? They see it restored to its former glory and they’re visibly moved. And, regular as horologist Steve’s clockwork, so are we.

Of course, a central plank of the show is the fact that the value of heirlooms is never mentioned – or even hinted at. This is not Antiques Roadshow, for heaven’s sake; these are not items anyone would sell. It’s a show about memories, not money. And the craftspeople give the same care to a magnificent antique sleigh as they would to a broken plate.

Those experts (Will Kirk, the furniture restorer, Kirsten Ramsay, the ceramics whizz and the rest) are stars in their own right, the self-effacing surgeons of stuff, with manual skills learnt over decades. I doubt I’ll ever need to make, say, a brass ferrule to put on the handle of a Victorian toy, but I’m glad the series showed me how.

It’s easy to see why The Repair Shop strikes a chord with people – a big, sweeping Elgar power-chord (though possibly played on an old accordion whose keys need fixing up). Loss and sadness colour everyone’s lives. Having objects that connect to our family history isn’t just nostalgia, it’s keeping the past warm, doing right by memories.

And the “Workshop of Dreams” is more than an old barn down a dusty track. It’s a postcard from a world before digital technology and throwaway consumerism, where people are polite and meticulous and modest. No wonder Stephen Fry recently called it “the best programme on British television”. I know a lot of people who would agree.

Catch up with The Repair Shop on BBC iPlayer here

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This article was originally published on 2 October 2018