By James Norton
BBC’s The Repair Shop is about hard work and mending battered psyches.
Much to our collective surprise, we now live at a time when the sight of fur-clad Visigoths tearing up the nation’s capital rotunda can be considered an above average but not altogether unremarkable news day. The emotional strains of the past year have been a shock and it’s fair to say that all of us have been dealing with a lot. Some of us (first responders, healthcare workers, restaurant workers, reporters) have been dealing with more than we can reasonably be expected to handle.
In that context, television that is nothing more than a stress-free escape from reality comes pretty close to being legitimately therapeutic. And if you’ll accept that leap of logic, then here’s a statement you’ll really find encouraging: The Repair Shop, a BBC program now airing its third season on Netflix, is pretty damned close to a miracle cure for the constant worry that now tears away at the very foundations of our lives.
The concept is reasonably simple. Somewhere off in the bucolic English countryside (the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, to be precise) there is a Brigadoon-like cottage-y Repair Shop inhabited by an assortment of benevolent demigods, each supervising their own little corner of the world of art and craft. Steve Fletcher works on clocks and other complex mechanisms. Will Kirk restores furniture. Sonnaz Nooranvary works on upholstery and caning. Kirsten Ramsay, who seems to literally sparkle with positivity, restores ceramics, and so forth. Many episodes also feature special visiting demigods and major spirits, like the Leather Repair Lady and the Adorable Stuffed Animal Ladies and the Grizzled, Bearded Sea Chest Guy, and so forth.
Mortals approach the Shop bearing broken family heirlooms, everything from a puppet-like-monkey-topped trick walking cane made in India to a priceless portrait that suffered a serious facial wound from a dart gun, to a cloying, absolutely ghastly looking porcelain clock that is nevertheless Old and Very Beloved and therefore Very Important to someone, and therefore is important to us, the viewers. The repair team assesses the damage with a mix of grave concern and cheerful can-do spirit, the mortals depart, and the team gets to work. The damage gets fixed, sometimes miraculously so.
Like The Great British Bake-Off, a program that is in many ways its spiritual cousin, The Repair Shop features a lot of gentle, well-spoken, talented people who legitimately seem to like one another. But unlike GBBO, stress is essentially absent from the equation — there’s no timer, no soggy bottoms, no passive aggressive remarks from Paul Hollywood, none of that stuff. The closest The Repair Shop comes to being stressful is when it’s suggested that the owners of the piece in question are a few hours away from arrival, so work will need to be done quickly to get the piece done. Does the work get done on time? 100 percent yes. Is it done to the satisfaction of the owners? 100 percent yes. Do we marvel at the skill, the patience, and the warm confidence of our hosts? Again: absolutely, always, and without fail.
Despite — or because — of that utter lack of producer-directed drama, The Repair Shop is remarkably compelling television. Watching horologist Steve take apart a clock and meticulously sort and then clean its hundreds of gears, screws, casings, and springs sounds dull as dirt but when you’re immersed in the work, watching his hands move, watching the piece be gently stripped apart, cleaned, and reassembled, it’s a marvelous thing to see.
Modern technology rarely gets touched or understood beyond its user interface — seeing a complex timepiece peeled apart and skillfully reassembled reminds you of the generations of knowledge and innovation that undergird day-to-day living while viscerally impressing upon you how completely lost you’d feel if you had to tackle that particularly gig. And more generally, the show introduces you to skills and processes (gluing, canvas repair, caning, etc.) that are both remarkably simple and jaw-droppingly subtle in their execution.
And while you can absolutely stare at this program in rapt attention, it also makes marvelously good cheerful, low-key room background, and it seems (so far) to stand up easily to repeated viewings. It’s so fiercely amiable and pleasant that it makes itself welcome in your home almost immediately, and it’s nearly impossible to come up with a reason to ask it to leave.
James Norton edits the Heavy Table, a culinary newsletter documenting the Upper Midwest. He has contributed to the Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and National Geographic online, among other publications. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two kids, and three semi-feral miniature panthers.