These days, it’s easy to assume the internet will eventually put every TV show and movie worth watching in front of my eyes somehow. Even if it’s made very far away. All TV worth gorging works that way, I thought, right?
Right. Except, apparently not! Because there’s a TV show in Britain that’s been on the air for 20 seasons — yes, 20, and I’ve been alive for all of them — called “Grand Designs,” a reality show that follows the emotional peaks and troughs of adventurous modern home building. Before March, I had never heard of it. Then, at the beginning of shelter-in-place, my partner was like:
Hey, my friend told me about this show. It’s supposed to be good.
And I said:
Grand what? Never heard of it.
Out of boredom, and obviously nothing else to do, we turned it on.
Not only was this show a breath of fresh air for its sheer Britishness, but the more we watched, the better it got: I could not believe that my disturbingly effective YouTube algorithm hadn’t already pushed one of its roughly 200 episodes in front of me the way it had “The Graham Norton Show,” to which I subsequently lost many hours of my life. (In the United States, Season 1 is of “Grand Designs” is currently on YouTube, and more recent seasons are on Netflix and IMDb TV.)
Which made finding it only more exciting. “Grand Designs” has many charms, and they’re not so dissimilar to those of “The Great British Baking Show.” There’s an overly theatrical host fond of casual blazers and multicolored scarves. There’s his very British skepticism as he assesses his subjects’ efforts. There are sweeping country landscapes with a lot of terrible weather.
But in this show, the goal is to build dream homes, not frangipani and iced buns. And that creates its own set of challenges, and payoffs, for our tired eyes. There are so many reasons I love this series, but I was forced to narrow them down to three.
1. The optimism, where none should exist
The majority of these future homeowners are not wealthy. But unlike on American reality TV, and in American culture generally, the host, Kevin McCloud, has the audacity to ask them where they got their money for their grand design anyway. And they have the lack of ego to answer. So British! So refreshing.
Often they’ve borrowed money from parents. Or they sold the home they were living in, stuffed themselves and three children into a trailer and hunkered down to wait out the build. That’s not because they have nothing better to do. It’s because, in their eyes, there is nothing more important than risking it all to live the life they want, in a house that lets them do it, even though nothing is telling them it’s a good idea. Reckless, but inspiring.
2. The dose of reality, when everything goes wrong
So there you are, riding high, watching this couple put it all on the line to make their dreams come true. There’s a satisfying computer rendering of what the dream house will look like when it’s complete. It’s usually something cube-y and modern with a lot of glass. There are often green roofs, too, which seem to be popular over there. You feel modestly hopeful as you watch the first clump of dirt dug from the ground.
And then: It all falls apart. They discover that city utilities don’t reach their plot, and they have to dig their own trenches for power and water — three weeks, gone. To save money, they’ve made themselves the site managers, but they fly planes for a living and aren’t good site managers — six weeks, down the drain. Maybe they feel they don’t need architectural drawings? Maybe they feel the passion poured into their sketches makes up for the lack of building instructions? Two more months, squandered.
Then comes winter and incessant rain. Building stops altogether. You can’t build a house on a mudslide.
But by then, they’ve run straight through their puny budgets. New loan applications are denied. That trailer they had planned to live in for only five months? A few years later, they’re still in it. You met their children when they were young grade schoolers, and now they’re preteens.
At the beginning of each episode, the date flashes across the bottom of the screen — say, “November, 2013.” These green home builders said they wanted their home finished for 200,000 pounds in nine months. When they finally move in, they’re 150,000 pounds over budget, and you see a new date at the bottom of the screen: “March, 2016.” It hurts a little, but the drama is rewarding.
3. The payoff, once the grand design is built
Still, it was worth all the trouble, right? They got their dream home! Well, not quite. Because once you see these homeowners living in the thing they had previously only imagined, it isn’t always the picture of happiness. Yes, their home is pretty cool. But what you also see is the fuller cost — it’s written all over their faces. These people no longer have money in the bank; they’ve lost years of their lives, just waiting to get here. Some relationships actually break up. Suddenly, their dream home looks a lot more like … a place to live.
And honestly, I like this. Because dreams don’t really come true — never quite the way you imagined. At the end of a build, McCloud asks one couple, sitting on the patio of their gorgeous poplar-clad structure in pastoral England, whether finishing the home had given them what they hoped for. The wife, Gill Flewers, wants it to be and says it is. Her husband, Jon, answers, “I’m not quite so sure.”
They’ve sacrificed so much. As he says this, Gill appears to be trying not to cry.
But in turn, I want to tell to them: It was worth it. Because rather than keeping a dream a dream, they acted. It might not look exactly how they imagined; it definitely doesn’t feel the way they wanted it to. But now their grand design exists, and it looks pretty good. And best of all? They’re home.