Proper Gander: Hoard Today, Gone Tomorrow

Like school kids cheating in maths class by copying the person next to them, TV producers are always on the lookout for a formula which someone else has made work. The BBC’s response to the popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey was an already-forgotten re-commissioning of Upstairs Downstairs, whose original run was itself the template for Downton. And hot on the heels of The Hoarder Next Door (Channel 4) comes BBC1’s Britain’s Biggest Hoarders – a title which implies it’s a competition. Why should hoarding, of all things, be the subject of two near-identical primetime programmes?

Both shows state that compulsive hoarding is a growing problem. The Hoarder Next Door says that 1.2 million people in the UK hoard, while Britain’s Biggest Hoarders more than doubles this to 3 million. Whatever the true figure, hoarding has TV appeal not because of its prevalence, but because it’s a mental health condition more visual than, say, depression. The symptoms of hoarding are there in the piles of rusting car parts, unopened boxes of trinkets and bags of tin cans. The sight of a hoarder’s packed home gives the kind of voyeuristic jolt documentary makers want. Although, as presenter Jasmine Harman says, ‘you live with it all around you and you stop seeing it.’

The programmes focus more on the gradual tackling of the stockpiles than they do with counselling, giving the simplistic impression that the mental health issue is cured when the hoard is tidied away. Clearing out the clutter also gives the producers the opportunity to resurrect the genre of home makeover shows, defunct since the recession. This kind of programme wouldn’t be complete without an emotional reveal of the renewed house underneath. The formulaic approach in both shows gives the uneasy feeling that a mental health condition and its treatment are being moulded to fit a TV programme’s format. Hoarding is more complicated and personal than that, although the condition is shaped by the society we live in. In a world which makes commodities both scarce and fetishised, it’s understandable that some people will find a kind of security in stockpiling as many as they can, even to the extent of it taking over their lives. A programme looking at hoarding from this angle would be more revealing.

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