“Imagine going back to the house where you grew up,” said the portentous voiceover to this four-part TV series, “and finding everything exactly as it used to be.” Frankly this happens to me every Christmas, but for the participants of this programme life had clearly moved on, at least in a literal sense.
The House That Made Me was a curious mix of childhood nostalgia, pop psychoanalysis and interior design history. Like a home makeover programme in reverse, it recreated the former homes of British celebrities, aiming to trigger a Proustian rush of association or elicit fresh insight into their complex psyches.
Four celebrities of diminishing renown took part with very differing results, depending largely on their current state of mind. In the cases of both former pop star Boy George and disgraced TV presenter Michael Barrymore, this clearly wasn’t too good. Their much-publicised personal traumas and involvement in pretty unsavoury events meant that both appeared to be looking for some kind of redemption.
For people of Barrymore’s age, the long shadow of 1970s interior design allowed for some easy laughs at clashing geometric wallpaper and star-burst clocks, not to mention the overabundance of ashtrays and elaborate drinks dispensers.
But there were more interesting stories to be found too. The role of technology in the home, for example, was telling. For Boy George it was his Dansette record player, for Barrymore his prog-rock synthesiser and for R&B singer Jamelia it was the birth of MTV that made home life bearable. Each of these objects offered a kind of portal, a route out of their teenage lives to something far more exciting.
The programmes also revealed a subtle territorial battle acted out within the family home. Comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar’s front room was largely out of bounds to the children, a sacrosanct space for entertaining guests only. The level of his parents’ self-effacing hospitality was also revealed by the presence of tricksy cigarette dispensers and a drinks cabinet hidden in a globe, despite the fact that neither of them drank or smoked.
Bhaskar proved the most interesting participant. His childhood in 1970s west London was overshadowed by the rise of the National Front and the racially motivated riots in nearby Southall. He revealed a touching friendship with the white family who ran the fish and chip shop next door, an unlikely pair of surrogate parents with whom he would sit day after day eating bags of chips. His own home included a genuine leopard skin mounted on the wall and various other stuffed animals, including a crocodile, all squeezed into a tiny first-floor flat.
There was an aspect of the homes that wasn’t mentioned at all though – a (non-stuffed) elephant in the room. This was the sticky issue of class. The recreated rooms revealed something very specific about the participant’s background and the relationship of social class to housing. Revealingly, all the participants came from working or lower-middle class backgrounds. This was evident not simply in the size of their house or the number of children sharing a bedroom, but in the way the rooms were laid out and the expectations of how people behaved in them. There were very few books or “high” cultural objects in evidence and decorative objects tended to be cheap, mass-produced items like the ubiquitous Crying Boy painting. Furniture was predominantly new rather than inherited and all of it was thrown out when interior fashions changed or the family moved house.
To talk of class in design and architecture is to invite charges of snobbishness and elitism. But to ignore it seems disingenuous, a kind of wilful refusal to see the social and economic factors that shape our environments. Clearly these issues were too raw and personal even for a programme as prurient as The House That Made Me, and they were inferred rather than spelled out.
The House That Made Me. Channel 4
The House That Made Me