Building up interest

Paul Murphy hopes the forthcoming BBC series Restoration will get the public thinking about design’s role in the public domain once again

Some might say that in recent years the BBC’s television coverage of art and design has tended towards easy subjects with easy treatments that don’t challenge audiences.

For example, the last BBC Design Awards, a series that profiled the latest and best in British architecture, product and graphic design with winners determined by the voting public, was held way back in 1996.

Looking back it seems remarkable that the BBC would have ever made a series that not only featured Tomato’s John Warwicker, Pentagram partner Kenneth Grange and the now British Design & Art Direction president Michael Johnson as major contributors, but was resolutely contemporary in its subject matter and avoided the ‘design as style and pastiche’ approach of the whole swathe of makeover television.

While the Design Awards may have risked alienating the general public (and even other designers) at times with the minutiae of design, you always felt that it was trying to further a broad understanding of what design’s about.

So there is a welcome sense of a return to form with Restoration. which starts this Friday on BBC2. Restoration profiles 30 listed buildings in various states of disrepair and in need of drastic maintenance. Through a public telephone vote, one of the 30 in this bricks-and-mortar beauty pageant will be chosen for restoration with funds raised in part by the voting phone lines.

Each of the ten programmes covers a geographical area and features three crumbling ruins. The ten winners of the regional heats, so to speak, go forward to a grand final and live event at the Tower of London where another round of voting will determine which building gets to be restored.

The description and investigation of the buildings are carried out by architect Ptolemy Dean and building surveyor Marianne Suhr, both Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings graduates, and once you get over the shock of TV presenters knowing their subject rather than splashing around in a pool of ignorance, they make a likeable and intelligent duo.

The opening programme takes in the Victoria Baths in Manchester, one of the many municipal buildings currently closed, the grand, but sadly now decrepit Bank Hall in Bretherton and Brackenhill Tower in Carlisle, a magnificent defensive fortification from the late 1500s.

Each contestant is championed by a celebrity who outlines why their adopted building should win with, for example, Loyd Grossman advocating Bank Hall, which hopefully won’t put too many of the punters off.

The selection of buildings is wide ranging, with intelligent and at times unexpected choices – historian Michael Wood champions the Harperly Prisoner Of War Camp in County Durham from World War II of which he says, ‘So often our heritage gets presented to us as a possession of the rich and powerful – Harperly couldn’t be more different. It is just a bunch of concrete huts, but when you walk inside the past comes alive.’

The BBC describes Restoration as a ‘landmark series’. The hope would be that what it marks is the return to television of debate about the role that design in the broadest sense has, and continues to mean to us in Britain.

Restoration will be shown on BBC2 on Friday 8 August. See www.bbc.co.uk/ restoration for further information

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