Old buildings and television

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when it’s dished out to millions of viewers on primetime television and concerns old buildings. It’s all very well to say that pointing or totally rotten timber floors need to be replaced but, if words such as ‘lime mortar’ and ‘ventilation’ are not included in the voiceover, and buildings are ripped apart without understanding, the viewer is misled – potentially with disastrous and expensive consequences when they come to repair their own building.

I know from lecturing and answering readers’ letters for magazines that most people are desperate to do the right thing with their homes and are hungry for the ‘right’ knowledge. As a writer I also know that, with a limited word count and tight deadlines, making sure the facts and implied meaning are correct is not always easy. In addition, from my experience of programme making, I’m all too well aware that these problems are vastly magnified by the stress of arduous location shoots and pressurised post production schedules.

But – and it’s a very big ‘But’ – the same presenters and production teams make identical mistakes time and time again. Many of these presenters are ‘experts’ in their field and they’re backed by researchers and specialists. What’s more, most production teams working in mainstream television are composed of highly skilled people. So why do these programmes get it so wrong?

The answer, I suspect, lies with the executives who commission the ‘shows’ and oversee the final output. There’s a strong belief that doom, gloom and disaster, coupled with a great deal of destruction and throwing bits of buildings into skips, makes good television while too many facts don’t.

To a degree, of course, they’re right but it doesn’t mean these programmes can’t be intelligent and informative. Surely a few less seconds of teeth sucking and doom laden voiceover could allow for an explanation of the materials being used and an understanding of the repercussions for the homeowner, and their wallet, if the information is disregarded. For example, the dangers of damp and decay caused by using a cement based mortar or render rather than one composed of lime. Equally there needs to be an awareness of the pitfalls and costs of quick fixes and chemical solutions.

Old buildings are more than ephemeral settings for television show, they’re our future as well as our past so, for presenters and broadcasters who want to demonstrate that they really understand them, I offer one useful word from the lexicon of old building repair and maintenance: ‘respect’.


  1. Julie on August 13, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Couldn’t agree more. I started taking an interest in the subject when we moved into our Victorian terrace three years ago. Whilst it luckily does not need too much doing to it, there are of course always bits and pieces that require maintenance. I have seen from things that my neighbours have done that there is a lot of ignorance with regards to just basic things (e.g blocking up air bricks) that show that more education would be helpful. As a lot of people don’t necessarily spend time researching the needs of an older house, and simply assume it can be “modernised” with new materials, tv programmes that reach a huge audience provide an excellent opportunity to provide some of that knowledge.

  2. Cinderella on August 14, 2010 at 7:27 am

    WHAT a great post. So true!

  3. mark on August 14, 2010 at 7:42 am

    Agreed. tv is a great medium for showing the process of how buildings are built and repaired, but surprisingly very few programmes actually feature architects!
    those that are persuaded are usually happy to fit in with a producers “angle” in the search for a wider human interest story.
    I look forward to a tv channel dedicated solely to architecture- “the building channel”!
    with hopefully some professionals-it can only be a matter of time!