Dowdy Zanzibar chest highlights the nicest show on television

Monday May 03 2021
Zanz pic
By Gerry Loughran

There are many people in Britain, and I’m one of them, who will tell you that The Repair Shop is the best programme on our TV screens.

Certainly, in these times of apprehension and discontent, it is the one show which guarantees cries of joy and delight, alongside tears of heartfelt gratitude, week after week.

The Repair Shop is actually a thatched barn, part of a so-called “living museum” in rural Singleton, West Sussex. It hosts some of the country’s most talented craftsmen and women who work there on the aforementioned repairs.

There is woodworker Will Kirk, whose grandmother came to Britain from the Caribbean; restorer of paintings Lucia Scalisi (English despite her name); brother and sister Steve and Suzie Fletcher – he a clock expert, she a leather worker; silversmith Brenton West; metal worker Dominic Chinea, and a handful of other geniuses.

What happens is people bring in items which are worn out, broken or dilapidated but which have immense personal or sentimental value – a doll, perhaps, or a teddy bear, a hat, a painting, a clock, a jacket.

The owners explain the family significance of the heirlooms, often embarrassed by their deterioration but hopeful of a good result to honour their long-gone loved ones.


An extraordinary item which figured in a recent edition of the programme was provided by a lady named Mahbuba.

She was a small girl in 1964 when revolution broke out in Zanzibar and her family fled to Britain, destitute.

Years later, on a visit to Oman, she spotted a wooden chest exactly like one her family had owned in Zanzibar and she bought it on the spot.

Now here it stood in the Repair Shop, dowdy, depressed and missing many of the ornamental studs which formed the dazzlingly intricate Arabic patterns on all its sides.

Mahbuba, now a grandmother, looked pleadingly at silversmith Brenton and carpenter Will: Could they possibly bring back at least some of its former glory? They gave the usual answer, “We’ll do our best.”

And so they set to work, Will cleaning the wood of years of grime, applying a preservative, then producing a shine which revealed a grain in the timber unseen for years; Brenton not only polishing the tarnished nails but painstakingly making exact replicas (prongs and mushroom-shaped caps which he welded together) for the 80-plus studs that went missing over the years.

The real magic of The Repair Shop is the awestruck reaction of the owners when their treasure is returned to them – amazed, unbelieving and frequently unable to hold back tears. The expression on Mahbuba’s face upon seeing her trunk restored was one of pure joy.

The Repair Shop is a BBC1 series that has been around since 2017.

Little noticed at first in a mid-afternoon spot, it gradually began to attract attention and was eventually moved to a prime-time evening slot on Wednesdays. There it garnered audiences of up to seven million, rivalling whatever is the big offering of any week.

One critic said of The Repair Shop, “It may very well be the most moving thing on British television. There are some episodes that get you right in the heart.”

Another said, “It is the show we should all be watching.” As for me, I know what I will be doing every Wednesday at 8 pm.

* * *

It is not often that governments or their institutions will apologise, but it has happened twice here recently.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace expressed “deep regret” that Britain failed to honour black and Asian soldiers who died fighting for the Empire.

A two-year investigation found that due to “pervasive racism”, as many as 350,000 African, Middle East and South Asian troops were not commemorated in the same way as their white comrades, often buried in unmarked graves.

The second apology came from the chief of the Post Office, Nick Read, after the Court of Appeal cleared 39 sub-postmasters and mistresses who had been convicted of theft, fraud or false accounting. The false charges arose from defects in the Post Office’s computer system.

The Post Office successfully prosecuted a total of 736 people after the defective Horizon system was installed in 1999. Hundreds of PO employees were fined, some were imprisoned and others were unable to get jobs afterwards.

Many of the remaining 697 are now expected to seek quashing of their own convictions.

Expressing his “sincere apology” for the wrongful prosecutions, Mr Read said, “I am working to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.”

* * *

There is a good chance that many reading this column will have come across the word “oxymoron” without knowing what it means (a particularly dumb person?). The dictionary definition: “A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.” Serious stuff, then.

Found missing. Open secret. Small crowd. Act naturally. Fully empty. Pretty ugly. Original copy. Only choice. Liquid gas. And the mother of them all: Social distancing.