One rapidly expanding sub-genre of daytime “reality TV” shows involves restoring and upcycling stuff. Maybe it says something about the times we live in, maybe it’s aspirational lifestyle programming, or maybe simply cheap TV. Sometimes it takes the form of a game.

The game has at least two participants / contestants. Each takes an old, unwanted object, scrubs it up well, sources or replicates missing parts or completely upcycles the yoke to give it an entirely new life and purpose.

The main goal of this game is purely monetary: to turn that object from trash into cash (no, not merely cash: make that “hard cash”) and make more money than your opponent(s).

Don’t get me wrong: I love upcycling. I’m a big fan of sugar soap, bicarb and lemon juice, steel wool, silicone sealant guns and a nice big bottle of Dettol Spray & Wipe Floor Cleaner, which truly is miraculous on mucky wood.

Refurbing, renovating and reclaiming rubbish is good for the soul and even better for the planet. (Even so, 21st-century Dublin is still a terribly throwaway society; when you see the neighbours dumping a perfectly fine fitted kitchen – one they bought only seven years ago – into a skip with a ton of flat-pack IKEA crap it’s enough to make you weep.) (And it’s not even their skip.)

Find It, Fix It, Flog It

Yet at the heart of these upcycling shows is a bizarre and disturbing notion of capitalist economics. It turns it into a form of voodoo magic.

Take “Find It, Fix It, Flog It”. On the surface the show appears to be down-to-earth, doing exactly what it says on the tin. The first series ran on weekday afternoons on Channel 4 for the past month and I’m missing it already. Even though the underlying formula is so predictable, I learned a few handy tips from it – such as, er, how to use aluminium cooking foil to clean up chrome.

The show’s recipe goes something like this. First, take two presenters:

  • The “Posh One” – TV producer and motorbike fanatic Henry Cole (he happens to have gone to Eton) – and
  • The “More Common One” – restoration specialist and actor Simon O’Brien (he happens to have a Scouse accent)

(A slight tangent: Simon also used to play the brilliant young Damon Grant in “Brookside” when it was still actually cutting edge, before Our Damon’s dreams were dashed by Maggie Thatcher and the YTS scheme and a nutter with a knife and Phil Redmond killed off the character.)

Presenters Henry Cole and Simon O'Brien

Presenters Henry Cole and Simon O’Brien

Next, slice the show into a game of two roughly equal but overlapping halves, each half measured out in exactly four sets of “Find” / “Fix” / “Flog” moments.

In the first half, Henry and Simon pootle around the country lanes of “Britain” or “the UK” (they really mean England) in a Land Rover. Henry is always the driver. One of them usually kicks off proceedings with some banter about the particular county we are in.

They take turns to choose their final destination: in this first half it’s perhaps a large shed or warehouse or farmyard in the middle of nowhere, and it’s overflowing with old bric-a-brac and tat.

Next, introduce the owner of said tat, an avid hoarder or collector, who leaves Simon and Henry at it among the junk. Each must choose just two items to take home and do up.

Despite being the posh one, Henry loves to get his hands dirty on anything mechanical, anything covered in rust and dust and engine gunk, preferably with two wheels; Simon, despite being the common one, prefers handcrafted artisan type stuff – old oak beams with a beautiful grain, an ancient piece of furniture perhaps, a Tudor relic.

Back at their workshops (in urban Liverpool and rural Oxfordshire respectively), Simon and Henry introduce their two items to their clever assistants. These are artist / upcycler Gemma Longworth and mechanic Guy Willison (again respectively).

Left: Guy Willison

Guy Willison (left) in Oxfordshire

Right: Gemma

Gemma Longworth (right) in Liverpool

In each episode we’re now reminded of how it’s all sort of family. Gemma says Simon “is sort of like a big brother”; Simon says “Guy and I have known each other since we were fifteen”.

If these were two family firms, Guy and Gemma would be the manual workforce on the shop floor. They are either delighted or baffled by the state of the objects that their managers / team leaders have brought back. There is much talk of “elbow grease” and the tasks involved and the work they’ll have to do.

OK, Simon and Henry are hands-on too, but Henry loves to brag most caddishly whenever he manages to delegate all the nastier and trickier tasks to Guy. Sometimes they also have to send an item out for special treatment such as sandblasting or re-enamelling, a specialist job. But more often than not poor Guy or Gemma ends up providing much of the elbows and most of the grease, and possibly a can of WD-40 and a tin of Ronseal wood-filler while we’re at it.

Then Guy and Gemma disappear from the picture again, presumably still stuck on the factory floor as the two team managers Simon and Henry descend on a large barn with their fully restored items, two wares apiece. They give them a twirl to the original owner(s) of what was once junk. Said owner(s) are suitably dazzled – apart from a pair of toffs in the very final episode.

This first half of the overall game concludes with an independent valuer giving his or her estimate for each item. Sometimes – but not always – all four items get a good result. Look! We (i.e. mostly Guy) cleaned up this little old Aston Martin fuel can and turned it into a much sought-after collectible worth £5,000. And we (i.e. mostly Gemma) transformed an abandoned cartwheel into this beautiful table with a glass top.

While we never actually see money change hands, the original owners are duly rewarded with a big lump sum of the profits from the four items. It will go towards a charity of their choice, or a well deserved holiday perhaps, or to buying yet more junk for their collection of vintage cars or what-have-you.

The second half repeats the process as Henry and Simon’s Land Rover trundles off to a second set of junk owners, at a second venue chosen by the other one of the team leaders.

By now you should know the drill. And the jigsaw. And the WD-40. As before, Simon and Henry each chooses two objects to fix and flog. And once again, Guy and Gemma then do their stuff back at the workshop, or jobs are subcontracted to external specialists.

At the very end there will be a pretend contest about whether Simon or Henry has picked the more lucrative venue and – what else? – oh yeah: Rhona Cameron’s irritating bloody voiceover. Sorry but it’s too shouty, more suitable for a large theatre stage rather than the small screen. Still, she’s not as bad as Dave Lamb, the infuriating voice of “Come Dine With Me”.

So that’s the formula of “Find It, Fix It, Flog It”:

  1. The managerial class of Simon and Henry scour through junk and use their expert knowledge to spot a FIND
  2. With the proletariat back at the dark satanic mills they FIX the object, transforming it into a thing of sheer beauty
  3. Then they FLOG it, or at least get an independent valuation, and the final sums are done to see who has won the game and made most money for the objects’ owners

And that’s what gets me going every time: how they calculate the final sums. That’s the voodoo.

The objects begin as unwanted junk with zero value. Fine, I’ve got that bit. And after the restoration these objects almost invariably have a new, much higher value. All fair enough so far.

The profit is determined by deducting the costs of any spare parts or materials they had to buy (such as a tin of special paint) and the expense of any external specialists they used, such as sandblasters or a vintage-tractor restorer.

Much of the time this profit is said to be “handsome”. Often, we are told, it is “pure”, because all that was required was a bit of elbow grease – usually Guy’s or Gemma’s.

But this notion of pure profit seems wild dodgy to me.

It’s one thing to repair and upcycle things yourself as an unpaid hobby, a good thing in itself. Yet as soon as it starts to involve other people’s labour, and sums of money and profit-and-loss sheets, on TV reality shows it seems to slide away from reality into a pretend world of fantasy economics.

It preys on the following fantasy: get something for literally nothing (which does happen in real life from time to time), add a drizzle of inspiration here and a glug of free elbow grease there and magically end up with so much added value and “pure” profit that you’d wonder why half the viewers haven’t already given up the day job and started up their own upcycling businesses.

In real reality – as opposed to “reality TV” reality – let’s do the real sums. First of all, surely Gemma and Guy wouldn’t be unpaid slaves, would they? Yet the programme treats their labour as valueless, completely without value, in the end just one more invisible item on the balance sheet.

At no point does the game factor in their time and labour and expertise, the cost of all those days spent scraping rat droppings and birdshit off a 100-year-old pheasant egg incubator or whatever (I didn’t make that bit up).

And while experience and smart ideas come in handy in the show, expertise in the real world is also valued – in pounds and pence. Expertise – whether it’s of workers Gemma and Guy or of managers / team leaders Simon and Henry – would normally come at a price.

Of all the “talent” (as it’s called in TV Land) on the show, Henry Cole alone would cost a pretty penny for his time and expertise. To do the one hour of television he’d have to take several days off as boss of Gladstone Motorcycles (they make bespoke custom bikes), and time out from running his own TV production company HCA Entertainment, and from presenting a plethora of other shows such as “World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides”, “The Motorbike Show” and “Shed and Buried”.

And in the “Find It, Fix It, Flog It” game the two teams work in workshops and work sheds. A real workshop would surely involve capital costs and running costs. You don’t equip a real workshop for nothing: all those drills and pots of spraypaint don’t come for free.

As for the rent and rates, the lighting and heating bills? All the wood for that wood-burning stove in the corner, or their Land Rover? It appears to run on fresh air as they travel the length and breadth of the English countryside in their quest for junk to bring back to base – or rather back to two separate bases at opposite ends of the country, involving yet more transport costs.

“Find It, Fix It, Flog It” is not the worst by any means. The junk in question is reasonably “locally sourced”, from locations across England. Same with Kirstie Allsopp and Gok Wan’s upcycling shows on the same station. I watch far too much lifestyle TV.

But what about those upcycling series where the contestants haggle in a flea market down the south of France, then ship the stuff all the way back to Blighty for a huge profit or occasional loss in a car boot sale in Buckinghamshire?

Imagine the air miles. Such programmes completely ignore not only the hidden time and labour but all the transport and travel costs involved. They turn economics into a game that bears no relation to the rules of business.

Imagine how much it would really cost to take time off work (unpaid leave perhaps) to jet off to France and presumably stay in a hotel, and to buy a large and dilapidated yet promising wardrobe in an upmarket brocante for (say) €120, then to ship said wardrobe all the way across the English Channel, do it up with a quick lick of paint “for that fashionably shabby chic / distressed look” and make a tidy profit of fifty quid in part four of the show after the break?

Right, rant over. Pass me the glue gun.