If walls could talk, what stories could they tell us asks Britain’s Secret Homes, yet another TV programme about houses. Among the home improvement, property speculation and historic homes shows this new ITV series is entering a pretty crowded marketplace. Surely there isn’t really room for another?
I’m a little irritated by the misleading title. These really aren’t secret homes – after all, no-one’s hiding them – although it’s true that many won’t be found in conventional design, art, or architectural histories, and few are open to the public. This is because often the most interesting thing about them isn’t the quality of the home itself, but the human interest story of those who lived there, and that is what this series focuses on.
In its favour, Britain’s Secret Homes makes enjoyable if undemanding viewing, skipping at breakneck speed through a list of top 50 houses chosen by heritage experts. Some are grand and historic, some small and quirky, others the setting for important sometimes covert activity, but all have a story to tell with or without the need for the celebrity cameos from the likes of Michael Portillo, Simon Armitage, Anthony Horowitz that pepper the programme.
Star of the first programme – which counted down from 50 to 40 in the list, was Loom Lane, architect George Marsh’s glorious 60s home in Radlett, designed at the same time as the architect was working on Centre Point with Richard Seifert. The splendid 60s interior is largely intact, complete with groovy plastic furniture and the marvellously whacky placement of an open-plan bathroom on a mezzanine overlooking the dining area.
There’s a very different time warp at no 42 in the chart – 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, east London, which was turned into a shrine to C18 living by its American owner Dennis Severs. The whole house is one giant installation of a fictional family of silk weavers represented over three generations in atmospheric room-sets that mirror the rise and decline of the trade and the fortunes of those involved.
The snippet on Arthur Conan Doyle was diverting for the strong parallels it drew between the design of the author’s old boarding school at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire and his fictional setting of Baskerville Hall. Sherlock Holmes fans will be interested that the young Conan Doyle’s fellow schoolboys included a Patrick Sherlock and two brothers called Moriarty.
A few of the homes featured are less hit than miss - sadly, William Blake’s only existing London house on South Molten Street bears no traces of the spirit of the environment where he composed and reproduced copies of Jerusalem – it’s now a waxing parlour and bland office – but that doesn’t stop it making the chart.
But generally most of the homes featured are inherently interesting – from the railway carriage used as a home in impoverished C19 Cornwall to the flat-park iron homes promoted at the Great Exhibition and still standing today. Future episodes promise the charming water-tower folly turned home House in the Clouds in Thorpeness, Suffolk and a C19 cottage in Worcestershire that was a prize in a lottery to help the poor get on the property latter.
It’s not a show for those wanting much architectural detail, but there’re loads of great stories to enjoy. It’s just a shame that they are all told at such a feverish pace. Less haste please, and more gain.
Britain’s Secret Homes, Fridays, 9-10pm, ITV.