Bargain Hunt and the quest for useless knowledge

The BBC has a packed line-up of daytime antique shows, but the original Bargain Hunt still provides the most edutainment...

It is an immutable law of the universe that everything everywhere will at some point be bought on Bargain Hunt. That important looking bit you keep in that tin of random things in case you find out what it’s for? In 2064 some antiques expert who hasn’t even been born yet will explain casually that it was used as a stand for rich Moldovan aristocrats’ spare eyeballs, or a small portable gardening tool for calibrating parasols. It doesn’t matter if it was actually the plastic thing that keeps your router standing on end.

It’s these genuinely true histories of random objects bought from someone’s car boot that makes Bargain Hunt the most educational of daytime shows – it teaches you about things you didn’t know you wanted to know about.

Bargain Hunt was first imposed on the world in space year 2000AD, before the parade of follow-the-leader clones such as Dickinson’s Real Deal, Flog It, Cash In The Attic, Antiques Road Trip, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Celebrity Antique Island, Xtreme Antique Wars, Kerry Katona’s Atomic Antiques and Channel 5’s The Nation’s 100 Favourite Antiques Game Shows Of All Time Ever Part 2. Our guide for most of this nonsense is Tim Wonnacott, a man so impossibly anachronistic you wonder whether someone might actually buy him by accident.

Well, he was. He recently left the programme, to be replaced by a team of guest presenters a la Have I Got News For You or Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Presumably, the BBC like this because it means lower wages. Of course, Tim Wonnacott himself was a replacement after David Dickinson left Bargain Hunt to host, er, Bargain Hunt. Yes, this show was so successful it had its own primetime version, until it was realised it wasn’t really that successful, and David Dickinson defected to ITV to peddle his love of bad suits on weekend afternoons. But for most of Bargain Hunt’s 823,543 episodes it’s been dear old bespectacled bebowtied befuddled Tim Wonnacott.

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Like almost the entirety of the BBC’s daytime output, Bargain Hunt follows a script and entirely fabricated formula. There are two teams of two who have just one British hour to purchase three genuine antiques from a market somewhere middle class. Then the items are valued by an auctioneer who laughs at them, and finally everything is sold for a loss at the licence payer’s expense because the premise of selling retail items wholesale is fundamentally flawed.

None of this actually happens. The two teams and an expert each wander around the antiques fair all day looking at random tat, with the expert desperately trying to corral the team into not just buying something from IKEA. Then, after everything has been bought, the camera crew comes in and films ‘reconstructions’ where the team pretend to haggle the price of their tooth sharpener down by an extra 50p. This is an acceptable break from reality to inject a little drama to proceedings, much as in ‘Bargain Hunt but for antiques you can live in’, Homes Under The Hammer. Ultimately, we don’t mind if it’s a little bit of a cheat, because we still see the teams do stupid things, and the fact that they’ve planned to do them in advance makes it far more entertaining. I mean, assuming you are entertained by someone in a muddy fleece overpaying for a pewter tankard. I know I am.

The beauty of the show is that it’s teaching you by stealth, but it exclusively educates you in things that are of no use. Ordinarily you wouldn’t spend your afternoons watching programmes about historical Britain, but seen through the lens of some preposterous knick knack it suddenly becomes compelling. Why did we never learn in school about Victorians making jewellery out of dead people’s hair? Or about porcelain glass eye spoons? Why don’t we talk about the myriad devices posh people used as defecation conveyances? It’s not history as seen by world leaders or great celebrities of the age, but through the mundane lives of your everyday dead millionaire.

Since our teams are always Red vs Blue, I can think of no alternative but to make this the world’s first Bargain Hunt/Halo fan fiction crossover [Legal Disclaimer: Den Of Geek formerly rescinds any and all responsibility for whatever it is that is about to happen – Ed].

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Our blues today are Church and Caboose. For the purpose of this article, Church is a recruitment consultant and Caboose is a recruitment consultant. Today’s expert who will be babysitting them will be Philip Serrell. He points out lots of interesting things, like a 17th century crystal decanter that inexplicably says ‘Aston Villa’ on it, or a chair once owned by Pope Jayden XXIX. Despite his best efforts, the blues buy a tin labelled ‘elbow grease’, an unexploded grenade and a dead puma.

Our reds today are Grif and Sarge. To slightly add some realism into the process, Grif is a recruitment consultant whereas Sarge is a recruitment consultant. Their expert is Philip Serrell as well why not, who shows them such interesting items as the wig holder of King George IV and the deeds to Cornwall. Ultimately the reds buy a Stradivarius, the Mona Lisa and the original theatrical version of Star Wars on Blu-ray.

Once the bargains have been successfully hunted it’s back to Tim Wonnacott for a spot of light entertainment, in case there has been none up to this point. Since there’s always a chance that we won’t have learned anything from the teams or the experts, it’s off to a local stately home to talk to one of the commoners who is allowed to work there. Let’s call him Donut. Donut shows Tim something interesting, which on many occasions turns out to be an antique made of other antiques, or a tank that the Lord uses to drive to London. (Yes, the tank is Sheila.) Alternatively, sometimes the budget doesn’t extend to a new location, so instead Tim browses the auction for something interesting. This again often turns out to be an antique made from other antiques, like an old cupboard veneered with shavings from a different cupboard.

Now the valuation happens with the auctioneer, who may or may not be one of the show’s regular experts. In my imaginary Halo crossover, the auctioneer is Philip Serrell again, screw it. Anyhoo, he values the items one by one, which inevitably brings a tut when the item is valued at £20 below the price paid for it. At best the team is predicted to break even, which Tim calls “wiped its face” without fail. Interestingly, if you Google image search “wiped its face” you get a mosquito, Tim Wonnacott grinning between two vases, and an ISIS soldier. Answers on a postcard.

First up it’s the Blues. Their three items (the tin of elbow grease, the unexploded grenade and a dead puma) are roundly laughed at by the expert, although the tin is at least admired as “a bit of fun”. Several seconds of tutting later, Tim says “they’re going to need their bonus buy” and we see the last item, bought by the experts with the money left over. As Church and Caboose only left Philip Serrell 50p he’s bought a chipped Charles and Diana memorial brick. The experts normally quite like what the expert has bought, so they normally get valued to at least break even. The blues, however, can choose not to take the bonus item. Most teams take the bonus item because normally they have such a big loss that it makes no difference whatsoever if it loses money.

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The tin turns out to be the remains of Mr E. L. Bowgrease, the 19th century philanthropist and wit, and is worth over £18 million. The unexploded grenade turns out to be the same unexploded grenade that failed to kill Hitler, and is sold for the entire landmass of Luxembourg. The dead puma turns out to be a perfect taxidermy of a recently extinct species, and is sold to a cloning lab for more money than currently exists. The Blues take the bonus Charles and Diana brick, which inexplicably makes a gargantuan loss, and they finish up making a loss of £104.

Next, the Reds. The bonus item Philip Serrell buys with the £150 left over is a large country manor in Lincolnshire. Obviously, Philip Serrell loves all these items and predicts a profit of £5. The Stradivarius is valued at £1.5 million until a tiny chip in the lacquer is found, and ultimately it sells for £10. The Mona Lisa doesn’t meet its reserve because it’s being sold at a furniture auction in Swansea, representing a £30 loss. Someone at the BBC “loses” the Star Wars disc and credits the team with the £5 they paid for it, representing their best result of the afternoon. They take the bonus item, but it merely “wipes its face”, and ultimately the reds finish with a loss of £15.

So, both teams have lost the BBC money and are both losers (even though Tim insists there are no losers, only runners up). But, along the way, we have learned something. We’ve learned a bit about old drinks cabinets, snuff boxes, and garden ornaments made to look like they’re older than they are. Sure, none of this information is useful unless you’re planning on going on Bargain Hunt, but watching Bargain Hunt brings with it a sense of accomplishment. We have been educated by stealth. We have had knowledge inserted into us while we were unaware. And because of that, we are empowered.

Well, either I’m empowered, or I’ve just gone on an all night binge of Bargain Hunt and Halo.