As we tentatively ease out of lockdowns with, hopefully, the worst behind us, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ll take with us and what we’ll leave behind. A year being cooped up indoors, has for many, led to a reevaluation of wants and needs with a greater appreciation for open space, our close relationships and more time to spend doing what we enjoy with the people we love. And like everything in the zeitgeist, this translates to our screens.
It’s hardly surprising to see heartwarming back-to-basics shows flourishing, with those in the style of 2016 hit Escape to the Chateau (pictured above) in particular proving the perfect pandemic antidote across the channel. In the original format, former British Army officer Dick Strawbridge, who had become a TV personality thanks to appearing as an engineering expert on Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, transformed a derelict French castle into a 45-bedroom hotel with his wife, Angel.
The format sparked a trend that continues to produce hits. Looking to Benelux neighbours Belgium and the Netherlands, audiences can’t get enough of gentle chateau reality. Both hailing from indie prodco Vincent TV, Chateau Meiland and Chateau Planckaert continue to prove hugely popular in their respective territories. Airing on SBS6 and Eén respectively, the two shows follow the titular families as they set out to achieve their chateau conversion dreams with the whole family mucking in – and more recently having to overcome the hurdles caused by the pandemic. Such is their success that family members have since launched into stardom and gone on to front spin-offs like SBS6’s prenatal-prep show Petit Chateau.
Yet the chateau’s success is no new phenomenon. UK audiences have been enjoying the exploits of Dick and Angel’s French restoration for seven seasons across five years with the Strawbridges launching various related business ventures including a tie-in book and all manner of chateau merchandise as a result. Like its more recent European genre buddies, the hit show is no stranger to a spin-off, with Escape to the Chateau DIY and the more recent Escape to the Chateau: Make Do and Mend indicative of the show’s solid success. The latter, originally a self-shot series commissioned as part of C4’s commitment to help people stay engaged during the Covid-19 lockdown, sees the handy Strawbridge couple helping other families with their own DIY projects. Returning for a second run this June, if the current Repair Shop-esque trend is anything to go by, we don’t envision this latest launch letting the Strawbridge franchise down on the ratings front.
Channel 4, home to Escape to the Chateau, is already heading back to explore more French countryside with upcoming ob doc We Bought a Village. From the same True North team behind A New Life in the Sun: Road Trip, the series is currently being filmed in Castelnau des Fieumarcon (pictured above), a once thriving medieval village that has been brought back to life for guests to enjoy as a truly dreamy historical location – essentially a chateau on steroids. There’s certainly worse production teams to be a part of…
So while Chateau-TV is by no means unique to 2020, the time seems ripe for new shows of this ilk. The essential appeal of escaping to the chateau is less to do with the physical chateau itself than it is starting afresh, escaping the rat race and just plain getting away from it all. Doing so in an idyllic historical setting surrounded by endless French fields is an added bonus. With people moving out of cities and flocking to the countryside, many of us are searching for our own slice of escapist heaven closer to home – even if just for a short staycation.
Back in Belgium, Staf Coppens – one half of the popular Coppens brothers presenting duo – has done just that. Camping Coppens – Op Weg naar Zweden (Tr. Camping Coppens – On the way to Sweden) follows Staf’s (partly self-shot) journey together with wife Monique and children Beau and Nora as they relocate to Sweden and get back to nature. The Roses Are Blue production has been a recent smash-hit for VTM, with the show invariably making it into the weekly top ten most watched shows in Flanders. The young family turns a pipe dream into reality, biting the bullet and buying a Swedish campsite before packing up, saying goodbye to friends and family and setting off an exciting cross-country adventure.
It seems there’s something in the water in Belgium in regard to celebrity fresh-start shows, combined with a dash of renovation. VTM 2 is gearing up to follow the South African adventures of former K3 band member Kathleen Aerts. Moving to the sunny Cape Winelands with her husband and sons a few years ago, the young family is now looking to build a guesthouse – an ideal blue print for new gentle reality Villa Zuid-Afrika (Tr. Villa South Africa).
In the UK, Jeremy Clarkson has set out to embrace a new style of living, albeit a little bit closer to home, by becoming Britain’s most unlikely farmer. Amazon documentary Clarkson’s Farm (pictured above) captures his efforts as the novice takes on the land he bought back in 2008, until recently under the wardship of a resident farmer. While reviews have been as mixed as to the British public’s opinion of Clarkson, the series is by no means a set up by the streamer that sees Clarkson departing the muddy stage when the cameras stop rolling. Over a year in the making, the farm life is Clarkson’s actual life these days, making the series more authentic than Clarkson’s eye-roll inducing antics sometimes suggest. Clarkson’s initiation into farming life was by no means a smooth ride requiring the help of some friendly farmer neighbours, with many of his efforts are lesson in what not to do.
Another well-known UK face, Johnny Vegas, also changed tack from his usual comedic roles to achieve a long-held dream on Channel 4 this past May. Together with his long-suffering assistant Bev he set out to find and renovate five vintage single deck buses, in order to open a glamorous camping – or “glamping” – holiday site. The Carry on Glamping premiere rated incredibly well, almost doubling the slot average, and appealed to younger viewers too with a 18.47% share of 16-24s (7.75% slot average!). It was easy to become instantly invested with Johnny’s emotional and often chaotic journey – hampered along the way by personal loss, the pandemic and even a bus catching fire.
From chateaus and villages to farms and campsites, lies the magique of the genre. Celebs lowering the guard of their showbiz persona and setting out on a heartwarming personal venture to which many of us relate or aspire is a reliable recipe for a successful show. For most, escaping to the chateau, or any other rustic lifestyle change, remains an elusive dream. The key to viewer enjoyment is that while the end goal is idyllic and escapist, the journey to get there is also a monumental challenge. For a family to transport their lives across borders, renovate a castle (or retro bus), and make a living ‘out in the sticks’ requires a lot of time, energy and expense (even more so during a global pandemic). It’s that combination of lofty dream and meaningful struggle that makes it all the more enjoyable to watch from the comfort of your sofa, sipping on a glass of corner shop Châteauneuf-du-Pape!