Formats Unpacked: Grand Designs
How has a show about construction and architecture kept UK audiences gripped for 20 series?
Thanks for giving me your click and saying nice things about last week’s newsletter. As promised, this week I have someone much smarter than me doing the unpacking.
Matt Locke is the founder and my co-director at Storythings. I met Matt when we were both at the BBC. He was leading digital innovation and would occasionally throw money in my direction to pay for my crazy early web ideas. Matt moved on to lead multi-platform at Channel 4.
What’s it called?
Grand Designs (TV show)
What’s the Format?
Someone with just enough construction experience to be dangerous has decided to build their own house - what were they thinking? To make things worse for them it’s not going to an average house. It’s going to be a dream home - their Grand Design. Things go wrong from start to finish and we get to see it all.
What’s the magic that made it special?
Grand Designs is a classic TV makeover format, telling stories about people trying to change their lives by changing the things they own. We love watching these shows because everyone would love to makeover their home (or life), but hardly anyone gets the chance. Instead, we live vicariously through other people’s attempts at reinventing themselves through spending huge amounts of money. Makeover shows are the purest form of late capitalism.
The magic in Grand Designs is two things - hubris, and the show’s host Kevin McCloud. The two are inextricably linked.
We only really watch makeover shows for two reasons - to cry with people who have earned the rewards from their makeover (think - Queer Eye), or to laugh at people for whom the makeover only brings trouble. This is where Grand Designs comes in, but I don’t think that was the intention when the show was first created.
I’m pretty sure it wanted to be a serious educational show about building your own house. Early episodes used to feature little instructional sections where Kevin McCloud explained a particular building material or technique, or gave architectural history lessons. Bake Off used to do this too, but quickly dumped them when they realised the drama of the contestants was more compelling.
This is what Grand Designs realised as well - building a dream house is a fantastically complex thing to do, involving huge amounts of money and debt, unreliable contractors, and massive amounts of risk. Focusing on how the owners’ initial dreams start to fall apart as they hit reality is way more compelling than yet another 5 min explanation of what a Huf Haus is.
As the show matured, the contrast between the hubris of the owners and the reality-checking expertise of Kevin McCloud became the real narrative engine for the format. McCloud is a kind of greek chorus for the viewers at home, raising an eyebrow or recording an aside to camera every time the owners decide that all the walls should be curved, or that they want a £100k slab of marble that has to be shipped from Sicily as a kitchen counter top. Or the classic moment when one of the owners decides that they can save money by doing the project management themselves, despite the fact they’ve never organised anything more complex than a school fete raffle in their life.
Grand Designs is essentially about how our dreams cope when they meet real life, whether this is having to live in a caravan onsite for six months, having all building work stop for a suddenly harsh winter, or having a contractor disappear for a week just before a major deadline. We love the show because it tempts us with something amazingly desirable, but then painfully walks us through the harsh reality of what it costs us to get the things we really want.
At the end of the show, there is always some kind of narrative resolution, but the owners’ faces are lined with the scars of their experience. Like the classic hero's journey, they are back home again, but forever changed. Grand Designs perfectly traces the eight steps in screenwriter Dan Harman’s famous Story Circle:
This is not just a show about building, it’s an epic tale of mankind’s struggle to impose order on nature (and building contractors), and if you look really closely, a sharp critique of the kind of owner-occupier capitalism it ostensibly celebrates. That’s the kind of depth you find in a format that is now in its 20th series. You can’t survive that long on a couple of cheap format tricks and a twinkly host - you have to go deeper than that, right back to some of the most fundamental story structures in history.
Not only because it’s in my home town, so I’ve actually seen the house, but because it has all the tropes of a classic Grand Designs episode. It’s a modernist statement house in a residential area, it’s full of glass curved walls, it ended up costing £1.8m to build (from an initial budget of £700k), and the owner went through hip replacements and heart-bypasses in the process. It’s a roller-coaster of emotion, concrete, and personal tragedy.
There’s a lot of house/refurbishing shows around, like DIY SOS or Your Home Made Perfect. None of them have the same perfect balance between knowledgeable exposition and narrative drive, though. DIY SOS leans too hard into the emotional back story, and Your Home Made Perfect is just gimmicky. Grand Designs has, over two decades of storytelling, got the balance just right.
We’re huge fans of Grand Designs in our house. The format itself is a grand design of rollercoaster escapism. Watching it we go from “I so want to build my own house” to “Why would anyone want to build their own house” back to “I so want to build my own house” again - all in 48 minutes.
If you have thoughts send them over. And let me know if you’d like to contribute. More unpacking next Wednesday.
Thanks for reading.