‘For comfort viewing, it’s quite rock’n’roll’: Why Changing Rooms is back

A sex swing inspired by the floating palace hotel in Udaipur – it was what Swansea had been calling out for,” says Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen over the phone, the morning after last week’s debut episode of the long-awaited Changing Rooms reboot sashayed back to our screens. Its return, after a 17-year hiatus, comes on Channel 4 rather than its original BBC home.

Llewelyn-Bowen transformed an almost entirely beige living room into a peacock and flamingo-inspired space with shell chandeliers and suspended seat. It was, as it happened, what these Swansea residents wanted – and it is also one of the most talked-about programmes of the summer.

While property and interiors shows are perennials, now may be a particularly rich time for them. Changing Rooms joins a host of interior design shows already out or soon to reach us: Nick Knowles’ Big House Clearout also landed last week, on Channel 5; Netflix – from Dream Home Makeover to Marie Kondo’s shows, is a haven for interior design; and BBC Two’s Interior Design Masters with Alan Carr is to get third and fourth seasons, as well as being granted a new home on BBC One. What is it about these shows that people love, and why are we seeing such a glut, spearheaded by the renaissance of what Llewelyn-Bowen calls the “great-great-grandmama” of the genre?

After a period in which many of us spent more time at home, interior design in general has become more of a national pastime than ever – DIY chains reported surges in sales after the first lockdown last year and spending on home improvement continued into autumn.

“Everyone was just at home. There were loads of people on furlough thinking, ‘What are we going to do? We can’t go anywhere – let’s decorate our house’,” says Siobhan Murphy, a finalist on this year’s Interior Design Masters.

Bold, maximalist interiors gained in popularity. “I think people are thinking, ‘Life’s too short, let’s get out the big guns. Is this grey interior really making us happy? Let’s decorate exactly how we want – if we like certain colours, let’s go for it’.”

Llewelyn-Bowen agrees: “Lockdown has forced people to exist within their own greynaissance. The show home that you created to come home to after a hard day at work no longer works, because, actually, it’s boring! It has no guts to it, it has no sex, it has no contrast, it has no colour … it tells no stories.”

Many of these shows, crucially, are about interior design makeovers on a relative shoestring. Murphy points to the amount of upcycling you see, something that chimes with the pandemic themes of tightened belts and passing time with crafts.

But for all of the synchronicity, it is, says Jonathan Rothery, the Channel 4 commissioner responsible for bringing Changing Rooms back to our screens, “sheer fluke we’ve landed on air when people have been staring at their grey walls for the last 18 months and are craving some design inspiration”. It is, he thinks, “perfect timing to lift the nation”.

The nuts and bolts of the television world have in some ways worked in favour of such shows, argues TV critic and broadcaster Scott Bryan, given they are easier to make than scripted television because “you only need a few cameras, a few participants and a lot of fluorescent paint”.

The revival of Changing Rooms ties into broader movements in TV viewing habits, as old classics were rewatched by locked-down viewers in need of nostalgic comforts. According to Nielson data, shows such as New Girl and The Office proved particularly popular, while NOW TV reported a 122% increase in views of The Sopranos between March and October 2020.

“At the time of the rise of streaming giants, many of us are wanting to watch the same shows over and over again, rather than watch anything new,” says Bryan. It is, he says, not just a winning formula for sitcoms but also old formats, “simply because we know what to expect and we have seen them all before. It doesn’t challenge the mind at a rather challenging time”. Even new home makeover shows feel reassuringly familiar, given the extensive history of the genre.

In the case of Changing Rooms, its return feels like a warm bath when many desperately need one. As Llewelyn-Bowen puts it: “People are throwing themselves at something that is so incredibly, reassuringly, nourishingly familiar in the midst of a world that just feels creepy as hell.”

It’s about identity. [Homes are about] who you aspire to be – it’s ultimately like a big, giant, expensive CV
But, he says, “for comfort viewing there’s … a lot of rock ’n’ roll attached to it. It’s not anodyne, mawkish or sugary. There’s a lot of undertow to it and, when it goes wrong, that’s when you get the real sense of chasing the ambulance.”

The occasions when it goes wrong are certainly memorable: the Linda Barker Teapot Disaster has become TV legend. “There’s baked-in jeopardy to it,” says Rothery. “If you’ve got Laurence or Russell [Whitehead] and Jordan [Cluroe], who’ve got bold taste, coming in and you’ve only ever had the confidence to use grey or white in your house then it’s going to create a jeopardy that people love to watch. It is an interiors show but it’s also part gameshow.”

The focus, adds Llewelyn-Bowen is “always about it being an entertaining watch. The interior design information is hidden beneath the sugaring on the pill.” In the case of Interior Design Masters, Alan Carr adds something similar – an injection of The Price Is Right energy.

Bryan believes a lot of love for Changing Rooms stems from the fact that many of the makeovers haven’t aged well. “So many of the transformations were utterly baffling. There was a camping-themed room … [and] an ‘arty’ room where two Greek gods were positioned at the foot of the bed.” One bedroom, he says, was transformed into something approximating a “sex dungeon, complete with hooks around the bed frame, silky curtains on all the walls and, to top it all off, a sculpture of an arse by the door”.

The nation’s love of these shows also says a lot about how we see our homes. “On a psychological or intellectual level, it’s about identity,” says Rothery. Homes are linked to who “you aspire to be – it’s ultimately like a big, giant, expensive CV”.

They are also a form of televisual curtain-twitching. “We’re a nosy nation, we want to see in other people’s homes,” says Rothery – and perhaps particularly at a time when doing so for real has been severely restricted.

TV viewers love makeover shows in general, from Netflix’s Queer Eye to the BBC’s Ground Force. “People love a transformation,” says Murphy, “whether that’s with a person with clothes and makeup, or of a room.”

When Changing Rooms first came to our screens in 1996, it was, points out Bryan, the era of “transformation TV, this idea present within television that you could transform your life in only a few days”. He points to fashion shows such as the prescriptive What Not to Wear (2001) and “the problematic 10 Years Younger” (2004).

Llewelyn-Bowen thinks property programmes killed the original makeover show. “Suddenly, Changing Rooms was unceremoniously taken off the air and replaced by Sarah Beeny, Kirsty and Phil, Homes Under the Hammer, all of those programmes, in which there is absolutely no information about how you decorate.” It was the era of buy-to-rent, and interiors needed to be blank canvases for renters rather than long-time residents.

Shows were now about “selling your house, not making your house”. Or, as Rothery puts it, shows were predicated on the idea that “there’s gold in them there bricks”. But the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders seem to have brought fresh relevance to the home makeover show.

Key, says Rothery, is creativity – “whether it’s Jamie cooking or Guy Martin with engineering. Not everyone has that passion in life and that quality to talk to people and sell it. And, as a population, we love creative, visual colour.”