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BBC’s The Repair Shop Is a Comforting Show About Death

Photo: BBC

Cold, clear water drips from yellowing leaves. A thin mist hangs over fields still silvery with last night’s frost. A middle-aged, middle-class Englishman steps out of his Range Rover in his Berghaus fleece and Hunter boots, holding a family heirloom that is as much a part of him as his own flesh and blood. This item — it could be a toy from his childhood or a memento from his father’s military service — has fallen into disrepair, but inside a 17th-century thatched workshop, there are experts in antiques restoration (wheelwrights, blacksmiths, luthiers, and so on) who can restore this item. When they inevitably do, the man, also inevitably, bursts into tears.

The BBC’s The Repair Shop, the third season of which is available in the U.S. on Netflix, is comfort viewing so cozy, so devoid of stakes and drama, that it makes The Great British Baking Show look like the later seasons of The Sopranos. In what we all can agree has been a very bad year, that is a fine thing, and the series’ cottagecore aesthetic and repeatable formula have made it something of a sleeper hit in its native country.

The show began in an early-evening slot on BBC2, the state broadcaster’s secondary channel. BBC2 is usually a repository for documentaries, comedy quiz shows, and light-entertainment content that doesn’t have broad enough appeal for BBC1, which plays host to prestige dramas, celebrity talent contests like Strictly Come Dancing, and long-running soap operas like EastEnders. The Repair Shop began gathering an audience, and by its fourth season, it was promoted to BBC1 and then, for its sixth and most recent run, to a prime-time slot on Thursdays at 8 p.m., where it typically garners an audience of 6.7 million people, around one-tenth of the U.K. population.

The show’s exact formula has been done dozens of times on everything from American Chopper to virtually all of HGTV’s lineup: a small team of expert craftspeople is given a challenge to renovate or repair and then they do it. We, the audience, know the professionals will never outright fail, but there are usually (often scripted) problems along the way — asbestos in the walls or the pro-wrestling-level interpersonal drama on Bar Rescue. Even The Great British Baking Show has winners and losers.

The Repair Shop has none of that. It doesn’t need that kind of manufactured drama. Introducing the merest possibility of the team’s restorations not being perfect would be like trying to ratchet up the tension in a warm bath or a cup of milky tea. As such, it can sit alongside similarly tranquil shows like Terrace House (kind, polite, young Japanese people have ultra-low-stakes relationship and career problems while living in a beautifully designed home) or cartoons ostensibly made for children but consumed by adults, like Steven Universe and She-Ra, as something we watch when everything is being a little too much.

But merely being a televisual warm blanket would explain only a little of the show’s broad appeal. The BBC bills it as “an antidote to throwaway culture,” a strangely radical mission statement for such soporific light entertainment but one that can be read in enough ways that anyone can find themselves agreeing with it.

As in most of the developed world, modern British retail is dominated by big-box stores selling cheap, mass-produced, and highly temporary products: Primark and Topshop for clothing, Ikea for furniture, Argos for home goods, and so on. The deal is, you buy a pair of Primark sweatpants (like the ones I’m writing in) for £5, they last a few months, you buy another pair. Nobody likes this situation. Everybody knows that the companies making disposable clothing could make sweatpants that last years, but they don’t want to, and even if they did, who could afford £50 sweatpants that last ten years? One of Britain’s best-loved writers tackled this exact problem using boots as an example.

But what The Repair Shop sells isn’t really an antidote to throwaway culture — the £5 sweatpants will still be there even if it runs to 60 seasons. It isn’t even selling an almost hipsterish aesthetic of hard-wearing, craftsman-produced goods; that’s all a little too Arts and Crafts Movement for the average Home Counties dad. What it seems to be selling is the idea that the past isn’t going away, that the shaving kit your grandfather brought with him into the trenches of the First World War still has value, which means that he and every Tommy who went over the top at the Somme still has value — and that you, somebody who values these things, still have value. In a country where every newspaper columnist is fretting about the London Woke Stasi rewriting Britain’s history (by being honest about Britain’s history), this is the kind of thing that could have some traction.

That’s not to say The Repair Shop is a paleoconservative sop to Queen and Country, though. The host, Jay Blades, is a working-class Black Londoner who came to prominence not from antiques restoration (he doesn’t get involved beyond occasionally assisting the artisans) but from activism, setting up schemes to train young men in manual labor and working with the police on race relations. He should be anathema to the show’s presumed audience, but he’s there every week with the kind of guy you’d imagine spends his time in the Daily Mail’s comments section, arguing that the Royal Navy should be machine-gunning refugee boats in the English Channel, who’s crying in his arms because his beloved teddy bear has little button eyes again. If it’s a conservative show, then it’s conservative with the smallest possible letter C.

Let’s take the first episode of the sixth and most recent season as an example of the tensions swirling beneath the surface. The first visitors to the shop are sisters bringing their father’s pump organ in for repair. Their father was part of the Windrush generation, the half-million Caribbean islanders brought to the U.K. after the Second World War to fill postwar labor shortages. Recently, the government destroyed the documentation that proved they had entered the country legally, and many were deported. The next guest brings along her father’s RAF cap, casually dropping that he was part of the firebombing of Dresden, which killed upwards of 25,000 civilians. Later, the team restores a crib built from the timbers of a church destroyed in a World War I zeppelin raid. Everything is connected in some way to the two World Wars — I have yet to see an episode in which the deadliest conflicts in human history aren’t part of the story. Every restoration seems tinged with mortality, every item connected to a lost loved one of the guests, who will often tearily comment on how the restoration makes them feel the presence of a dead family member again.

Strangely, that disparity between the clear love of the guests for their heirlooms, the equally clear care that the artisans show for them during the restoration, the whole twee cottagecore aesthetic, and how close everything is to massive-scale tragedy doesn’t sink the show. It is very explicitly made as a salve for people living in a psychologically toxic mass-consumer society, yet it remains joyous, celebratory, even moving. The mere fact that it shows old, rich white men crying at a time when the U.K. is moving toward alt-right-style, ultramasculine, “trigger the libs” conservatism seems revelatory.

Because what The Repair Shop is really about is death. Not redeeming relics of colonialism and empire, not making us feel less guilty for having to buy clothes made by children in Bangladesh that will last until our next haircut, but the fact that everybody dies. In each story it presents, people come to the barn having lost someone, usually recently, and they are put back in touch with them. The artisans aren’t just craftspeople, they’re secular mediums — and right now, what could be more comforting than the idea that the people we’ve lost aren’t truly gone?

BBC’s The Repair Shop Is a Comforting Show About Death