Formats Unpacked: The Repair Shop

How a format became the 'loveliest show on TV'

Hi All,

@natbat asked an interesting question on Twitter the other day.

Matt Webb hoped we might have the answer. Unfortunately not. Perhaps some of our readers do? I mention this because my Storythings co-director and founder Matt Locke replied with an interesting story about The Great British Bake-off.

A nasty Bake-off just seems so unimaginable, doesn’t it! Thankfully the show proved that there were audiences for warm and celebratory shows paving the way for formats like the hugely successful one we’re unpacking today.

Doing the unpacking is Nick Parker, founder of That Explains Things, an agency that helps brands find their voice. He also writes an excellent newsletter The Journal of Messy Thinking. When Nick approached me with Repair Shop I was surprised no one had thought of it earlier - everyone I know is in love with it. I’m delighted he did though. It’s a great unpacking.

Over to Nick…


What’s it called?

The Repair Shop (TV show)

What’s the format?

The Repair Shop is a bunch of furniture restorers and craftspeople, headed up by Literally the World’s Nicest Bloke, Jay Blades. Each programme sees guests bring in treasured-yet-knackered family heirlooms into the Repair Shop’s shabby chic barn. The guests tell Jay why the treasured-yet-knackered thing means so much to them, then the Repair Shop crafters quietly get to work buffing and filling, gluing and stuffing. Then the guests come back for a money-shot reveal of the now treasured-and-restored thing. It looks magnificent. Everybody cries. Repeat. 

The Repair Shop is an accumulation of perfect details: the cast are all charming and natural, and not at all ‘TV presenter-y’; it’s quietly and lovingly shot, lingering on the care and craft, with almost ASMR audio. The objects are always humble (a teddy bear, a fishing tackle box, an old transistor radio) – we’re very definitely repairing stuff, not restoring antiques. 

It’s been running for 5 seasons, yet because of the way it’s jumped around the schedules – and likely also because we’ve all been hunting for calming things to watch during the Year of Lockdowns – it’s one of those programmes most people stumble across and feel like they’ve discovered a secret.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The Repair Shop’s superpower is, I think, this. Unlike every other TV show of its type, in the Repair Shop there is no drama whatsoever. Nothing bad happens. Ever. There’s no artificially created tension. (‘will they get the wind-up toy repaired on time?!’ Sure. It was never in doubt.) There’s no forced conflict. (Will Jay lend Dom a hand outside in the freezing cold? Yes. He’s totally happy to.) Will the guests be happy with what the team have done? Of course. Guaranteed tears of joy. 

Sure, the guests invariably have heart-string-tugging backstories to tell, but there’s never any ‘Oh if we don’t get this repaired granny’s birthday will be ruined’ vibe. The team aren’t working against the clock. Nobody gets surprised unexpectedly. There’s no competition to see who does the ‘best repair’. 

Zero tension. Always. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor’s description of Lake Wobegon: in the Repair Shop, everybody is always nice, nothing is too much trouble, and all the endings are happy. 

Which is quietly radical for this sort of show, which are always in one way or another built around a fundamental tension – either between the team and the guests (Changing Rooms style: ‘Will Shelia lose her shit when she sees what Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen has done to her bedroom with MDF?’) The team themselves (American Chopper style: what will they argue about next and will they kill each other?). Even the Antiques Roadshow cranks up the tension around the guests and their objects: is it worth a fortune or is it worthless tat? And even the Great British Bake-off – previous holder of ‘nicest programme on telly’ crown – is, after all, a knock-out competition, ending every week with someone knocked out and sent home with their dreams crushed.

The Repair Shop is having none of this. It’s 100% calm, caring and just really, really, really kind. On paper, it should be suffocatingly saccharine. Yet it’s not. The careful avoidance of all tension gives it a quietly grown-up vibe. 

If we just stopped with all the histrionics and manufactured drama, it seems to be saying, we could literally fix anything.

Favourite episode?

Literally any of them. Part of the joy is in how every episode sounds so unpromising (‘this week, some bagpipes, an old bucket, and a bell-shaped like a frog’) yet always ends up being transfixing. (Yes, all those things have really featured.)

Similar formats

As already mentioned, there’s a clear connection to 90s DIY makeover shows such as Changing Rooms, and a pinch of show-us-your-heirlooms Antiques Roadshow. There’s also a dose of feel-good handy-folk-fix-things-and-spread-joy of Nick Knowles’s DIY SOS. I think there’s also a connection to workshop fetish stuff like James May’s The Reassembler. Though perhaps it’s got more in common with YouTube workshop videos. Millions of us will happily watch people making or repairing stuff on YouTube for hours. (I went in search of a random example, found this video of a bloke restoring a Stanley #4 Hand Plane, and ended up watching all 24 minutes of it.)

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Thanks Nick,

We were running a format development workshop with a client this week with a particular focus on endings, asking the question how you want to make people feel after. So I really liked this from Nick’s unpacking:

If we just stopped with all the histrionics and manufactured drama, it seems to be saying, we could literally fix anything.

I’m all for less drama and more optimism in my media consumption these days. I’d love to hear more from you about how endings of certain formats make you feel.

Until next week,

Hugh