Escape to the Country

I think it was Leo Tolstoy who said, no, I won't lie, I know fine well it was Leo Tolstoy because I have just looked it up. It was Leo Tolstoy who said that all happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I often think of this while watching an edition of Escape to the Country. Alternately hosted by, among others, property expert Jonny Irwin, property expert Denise Nurse, property expert Jools Hudson and ex-choirboy Aled Jones (I have no idea how he got the gig), Escape to the Country is a regular feature of the afternoon schedules. I know it is none of my business but Jools Hudson's complexion is giving me cause for concern. I haven't seen a man with a face so red since John Thaw was talked into spending That Year In Provence.

There are few surprises in this show because most of these happy couples all want the same thing. They also have a spare £750,000 rolling around in the bank, though one poor couple only had a 'modest £450,000 budget'. £450,000, modest? I've seen contestants on The Apprentice that are more modest than that. Retired with all the kids flown the nest, the couple will be looking for a five-bedroomed property. It's always a property, never a house, and the property is usually in Dorset.

It would have ten acres of land so that they can grow vegetables and set up their own garden centre, and a sufficient number of outbuildings to enable them to start their own artisanal bakery business. I don't know why anyone would want to grow their own veg or start their own bakery. Have these people never heard of supermarkets? I don't eat much veg so I can't say but I bought a perfectly good loaf from my local Aldi just the other day. White it was. It only cost a quid and it tasted lovely, far nicer than anything I could have made. Now that I am well entrenched in middle age I have realised that the secret of life is that it's horses for courses. I wouldn't dream of setting myself up in business as, say, a ceramic tile manufacturer because I would be rubbish at it. No, if I want some tiles to decorate the kitchen or bathroom I can find some fine examples at B&Q or, if I'm feeling flush, Topps Tiles. Similarly, I wouldn't dream of changing the oil in the car or replacing a flat tyre. I leave that to my wife.

The strange thing is, that very few of the house-hunters ever buy any of the houses they look at and this leads me think that they only participate to make other viewers envious. The annoying thing is that it works but, if I had the money, I would do the same thing myself. Some couples actually buy a house, sorry, property, because the producers have created the spin-off I Escaped to the Country. The premise of this show is that the cameras re-visit couples too see how they have settled in their dream homes. You can bet the place will be a haven of peace and quiet, all the better to hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped. In case you're wondering, and so you know where I'm coming from, I am writing this in a three-bedroomed shoe box just off the Seal Sands Road in Billingham.

Like all good franchises, Escape to the Country has started to diversify to keep the viewer interested. For adventurous viewers seeking a bit of sun, we now have Escape to the Continent. It's the same format except that participants have the whole of Europe to have a look around before thanking their host for giving them the opportunity to appear on telly and using the excuse that they have decided to give the move some more thought before jumping in with both feet. The odd couple sometimes decide to buy a place. In one episode, a shady looking couple (probably a bank robber and his moll taking the title of the programme a little too literally) trolled round the Algarve, the Dalmatian coast and the isle of Capri before deciding that they would join the rest of their mates and buy a bolt hole in Marbella. The only person who didn't see that coming was amiable host Jenni Falconer.

Norm AbramOf course, before putting a property on the market, the sensible seller will want to do the house up so that it appeals to prospective buyers. There are plenty of do-it yourself programmes on the market that are more than willing to offer advice. I have always been a student of the Reg Prescott school of D-I-Y but I used to enjoy taking a voyage around the various incarnations of the Discovery channel. The breakout star of Discovery Home and Leisure was undoubtedly Norm Abram in his New Yankee Workshop. Bound by contract, Norm would patiently recite his mantra on safety at the start of every project, knowing full well that no self-respecting man reads or, worse still, listens to instructions.

A vision in plaid, Norm benefited from a workshop the size of Nissan car plant, chocked full of machinery that wouldn't look out of place in Space Mission Control in Houston. In one episode, Norm raved excitedly about the latest pictures, beamed to his router by NASA, that showed possible signs of life on Gallifrey. His enthusiasm is admirable but it's not really what the viewer wants to see when he has only tuned in to watch Norm fashion a lovespoon out of a stout piece of walnut. Norm, we have a problem. You got a good twenty years' worth of telly out of your carpentry skills and I love your plaid shirts but I think if you really wanted to attract no-hopers like myself you should have ditched the hi-tech and stuck with a pencil, a tape measure and a handsaw.

Tommy WalshCloser to home, Tommy Walsh no longer has to play cheery third fiddle to Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock on Ground Force. He has progressed to appearing in numerous programmes such as Trading Places, in which he learns trades such as brick making, roof thatching and dry wall assembly, and Space Invaders, in which he invades other people's space. Thanks to Tommy, I have taken to calling my hammer 'the persuader'. There is nothing more satisfying than persuading the living daylights out of an inanimate object that won't do it is supposed to.

I tuned in once to watch what I thought was a TV programme about The Proclaimers. I was just in the mood to sing along with the Reid twins crooning 'When ye go, wiw ye send back, a letter frae America.' Unfortunately, I had misheard and was faced with The Reclaimers which featured Tommy Walsh and some other bloke traipsing around reclamation yards in the vain hope of producing some decent telly. I think they ended up making a spice rack out of some old church pews and a pianola. When I was a kid reclamation yards were called junk yards and I was always told to stay clear of them in those public information films aimed at turning bright, well-adjusted kids into panic-stricken hermits. Who'd have thought that, forty years later, such places would become a source of cheap television programmes.

For those who want to bring the outdoors indoors, or something like that anyway, Stu Evans and Ricky Tate (also known by the their nom de TV of the Shedheads) travel the country righting wrongs and erecting sheds. I am partial to a good shed but some of their constructions are way beyond the pocket and skills of your average TV watcher. I don't think outdoor offices or ornate summer houses can really be classed as sheds. As this is Sky, the viewer never knows what he is going to get when he switches on. I tuned in one week to find Ricky and Stu building a wendy house. I tuned in a couple of weeks later and they were still building it. Either they were constructing the Taj Mahal of wendy houses or I had stumbled across another repeat. I know nothing about betting but I do know a lot about Sky TV so, if I were a gambling man, I would bung fifty quid on the latter.

Ricky likes having Stu in tow because he makes Ricky feel like a Mastermind winner.
'That was a great build Ricky,' Stu said at the end of a particularly gruelling instalment in which they put together a semi-detached outhouse, 'the whole area looks a lot more nicer.'
Ricky pounced on this grammatical faux pas. 'No, no, no, Stu', he said, 'you can't say 'a lot more nicer'. It's 'a lot more nicer-er'.' Ricky then turned to the camera and rolled his eyes.

Rico DanielsRicky's mate Rico Daniels has also got in on the act as The Salvager, in which he takes old pieces of scrap metal and wood and transforms them into different pieces of scrap metal and wood. For all his recycling zeal, Rico reminds me of that old joke about the castaway, he may have been Irish, he may not, who finds a rowing boat and then chops it up and makes a raft. In one episode Rico came across a perfectly serviceable table, chopped it up and made a table. In recent years, Rico has decamped across the Channel where he has set himself up as Le Salvager. My favourite episode of Le Salvager was the one where Rico took an angle grinder (whatever that is) to a Renault 2CV, sliced it in half, burned the tyres, smashed the windscreen and slashed the upholstery. He didn't make anything out of it, he was just annoyed because its owner wouldn't stop playing Yves Montand records at two in the morning. Something tells me Monsieur Daniels will have a hard time adjusting to life in France. I have lived among the French and, from within my English bubble, even I soon learned that nobody can diss Yves Montand and expect to get away with it. Charles Trenet is fair game but Yves is untouchable.

It is not a particularly original thought, I know, but if you stay alive and watch for long enough you will see that we all go round in circles. TV do-it-yourselfers now are intent on restoring houses to their original state, stripping back the formica and plywood that had been lovingly applied by their earlier counterparts. Does Barry Bucknell mean nothing to them? Did he DIY in vain?

Sufficiently inspired by Norm and the rest of his mates on Discovery, I recently build myself a shed. I have called it the 'Oh, oh, Julie' and I have managed to convince my wife, Julie, that I named it after her. Like Tommy Walsh with a trowelful of loose mortar, I laid it on thick by telling her that, with the honourable exception of Mae Busch, there is no other woman after whom I would rather name a shed.

The sad truth is that I named the shed the 'Oh Oh Julie' after Shakin' Stevens' number one single from 1982. He was on a hot streak then and this was the third, and possibly best, number one of the four that he amassed. If you haven't heard it yet you should get yourself on that there Youtube and have a listen. It's lovely stuff. I haven't told my wife about the Shaky connection on the reasonable grounds that what my wife doesn't know won't harm me.

Before opening up his workshop to the viewing public Norm Abram appeared in a programme in which he helped to renovate a Victorian mansion in Boston. As the show was called This Old House I like to think that its producers shared my admiration of the works of Shakin' Stevens.

Review: Review: Andrew Coby 2017