How A House Through Time peels back the wallpaper of history…

Something all home improvement shows have in common is that they make you look again at your own house and sigh a Kevin McCloud-shaped sigh.

Grand Designs on Channel 4 is a long-time favourite, apart from those episodes where a rich person builds a fantastic house from bricks of gold or whatever. Right now, McCloud is presenting a spin-off show about self-erecters who are building a whole street. It’s a decent watch, with the usual hammed-up moments where it all goes wrong, only to go right straight after the ad break.

Then there is George Clarke with his amazing spaces, possibly so called because every other word he utters is “amazing”, and his ugly houses made lovely after being rubbed down with Cinderella sandpaper.

A new variant on BBC2 uses virtual reality in a standoff between two architects who compete to win a commission to improve a home, with the owners being taken on a VR tour round the options, then choosing their favourite. I’ve only seen one episode of Your Home Made Perfect so far. Clever, goes on a bit – but the first house makeover was impressive.

What none of these TV programmes does though is consider a house through all the people who have ever lived there. That’s the simple but brilliant concept behind BBC2’s A House Through Time. The layers of history are peeled away, showing what happened in the house, the ups and (mostly) downs of previous owners and tenants. It’s a history lesson wrapped up in a house, and it works a treat.

In the first series, broadcaster and historian David Olusoga uncovered the history of a Georgian terraced property in Liverpool, and for the second series, running now, he peels back the wallpaper on a Georgian end-of-terrace on Ravensworth Terrace in the West End of Newcastle.

The busy-bee researchers do much of the work, at a guess, before David rolls up, as the houses are well chosen. History certainly bubbles up through the floorboards of the Newcastle house.

So far this series, we have seen the burglary of umbrellas leading to two boys being transported to Australia, thanks to the lawyer who owned the house (and the purloined umbrellas); attempted murder; musical hall stars; a local woman made an enemy alien through marriage to a German man shortly before the First World War; shameful death the workhouse; alcoholism; IRA activity – and even occasional evidence of happy lives having been lived.

This series starts with an investigation of lawyer and family man William Stoker, whose uncharitable behaviour over those umbrellas made an 1835 edition of the local newspaper. Stoker, should you be wondering, came to an appropriately sticky end.

A House Through Time beats all those other house programmes. It reminds us that a house is more than something to decorate and improve.

Mind you, that Newcastle terrace looks lovely now. Just the sort of house to raise a Kevin McCloud-shaped sigh.

Leave a Reply