TV’s property queen was ridiculed, but she was only talking to her audience without humbug
By the summer of 2007, Kirstie Allsopp’s future seemed pre-ordained. She would be loathed, then ridiculed, then forgotten. Years afterwards, people would shake themselves when they discovered in a newspaper a “where are they now” feature that she was still alive, much as we shake ourselves when we discover that the Turner Prize or Jeffrey Archer did not disappear in the Nineties but continue to this day.
The business cycle demanded the destruction of her reputation. The equally capricious wheel of fortune, which raises then dashes the careers of celebrities, was turning against her. Allsopp presented Location, Location, Location, Channel 4’s contribution to the property bubble. Technically, she co-presented the programme with Phil Spencer. Alas, although he knew the estate agency business and was a more than competent broadcaster, he was, like Denis Thatcher with Margaret or Charles with Diana, a second-string player always in the shade of the star. Viewers could not take their eyes off Allsopp, or to be correct, the Honourable Kirstie Allsopp, daughter of Charles Henry Allsopp, 6th Baron Hindlip. She demanded attention. Bertie Wooster might have been speaking of her when he described “one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge”.
Allsopp swept through the unspoilt villages of the shires and the suburbs of the great cities like a modern compiler of the Doomsday Book, finding value in properties no TV presenter had inspected before. As the bubble reached dizzying heights, she did not see the danger and continued to warn house hunters that if they did not buy now they would pay more later.
When the market crashed, her enemies came for her. Iain McWhirter of the New Statesman appeared to be in a competition to find out who could fit the most clichés into a paragraph, when he wrote, “The government still believes that, as the property porn queen Kirstie Allsopp puts it, ‘house prices always go up’. In other words, it believes in fairies, and that money grows on trees. Now comes the big bad wolf to the door, and the last thing anyone should think of doing right now is buying a house.” The BBC’s Panorama took a shot at a Channel 4 star, while Jan Moir of the Daily Telegraph asked, “Can we blame it all on Kirstie Allsopp?”
Yes, apparently, we could. With the value of buy-to-let properties falling and tenants refusing to pay their rent, “it would not be entirely fatuous to suggest that she, and others like her, have a case to answer”, Moir sniffed.
Britain’s failure to build new homes was not responsible for the boom and bust. Nor should we blame a credit system awash with cheap money from Asia and pampered by insouciant central bankers. The worst recession of our lifetimes was at the very least aided and abetted by a high-spirited Englishwoman of the upper class.
Allsopp did herself no good when she, too, ignored the money and housing supplies and hit back at her critics by attributing the crash to a vast journalistic conspiracy. “Some of the recent gloomy headlines make me suspect that all the journalists in the country have sold up and are doing everything in their power to cause a house price crash so that they can buy at rock bottom,” she declared, as the market began to fall.
With that sullen pout, she should have gone, but she survives and seems to be prospering. A new series of Location, Location, Location begins this summer. While you wait, you can see repeats of old episodes on More4 three times a week. Just think of it, there are people who sit down three times a week and watch property programmes from six, seven or eight years ago, in which a tall couple need a flat with suitably high ceilings, or Kirstie and Phil settle disputes between a wife who wants a period house with a garden, and a husband who wants a new-build with a garage.
When I joined them, I realised that Allsopp had not driven her viewers half-mad by pushing them into the greed of turbo-consumerism. She simply satisfied their curiosity about the private lives of others. If this is a moral failing, I share it. Only a small band of hard-core horticulturalists attends the meetings of my local gardening society. But when it holds its annual inspection of local gardens, scores of part-time gardeners who barely know one end of a hoe from another turn out to give the homes of our neighbours a thorough inspection, reflect on their taste or lack of it and wonder how they afforded the kitchen range.
Allsopp indulged our voyeurism but also offered sensible advice on the need to compromise and the dangers of buying on impulse. Appeals to naked greed were rare, and even when they occurred were far from sinister. What for instance do you make of this scene, when Kirstie and Phil took an unimpressed couple round a semi-derelict Edwardian home in Guildford at the height of the bubble?
“Is there a price where this becomes interesting, say, £100,000?” asks Phil.
“OK, we’d buy it at a hundred grand,” said the sceptical wife.
“Would you buy it at 125?”
“Just supposing you did, supposing I did at 125 and I then spent 40-odd, what do you think it would be worth?”
“Couple of hundred easily.”
“I’d have just made 40 grand.”
“Tax free, tax free!” cries Kirstie in the background.
“Just a thought,” says Phil.
I suppose they were feeding the craving for unearned wealth which was driving the market. But, and let me put this tactfully, I speak from experience when I say that writers for the New Statesman do not always live in a state of contemptuous isolation from the materialist culture which surrounds them. While publicly deploring the “property porn” addiction of the masses, they are all too easily overwhelmed by mounting excitement when they close the curtains and ogle the rising prices of their own homes.
The Honourable Kirstie Allsopp will be on our screens long after they are forgotten because she talks to her audience without humbug. She realises it not only wants to know how the other half live, but their cost of living, what they can live with and what they cannot live without.