In praise of Bargain Hunt

Like many people, I am working from home at the moment. In normal circumstances, I work at home a day or two a week, and I have a routine. Everything stops at 12:15 for lunch and Bargain Hunt.

Bargain Hunt is, in my view, a perfect TV show. It is difficult to classify. It is an antiques show, but it is much more diverse and less avaricious than Antiques Roadshow. It is a gameshow, but ‘winning’ is not really about money: people usually go home empty handed and nobody minds. It is a reality show, as it takes place at actual auctions and antiques fairs: it is tightly edited and structured, but the emotions on show are genuine. It is a light entertainment programme, because it is accessible and undoubtedly entertaining. And it is a history programme.

The notion that it is a history programme requires some justification. Bargain Hunt is often singled out by the BBC’s critics as an example of a poor quality entertainment format, that does not uphold the corporation’s charter responsibilities to provide distinctive and educational content. But I reckon it is one of the best history shows on TV (and let’s face it, there are plenty of dreadful ones).

The format is as follows. Two teams are taken to an antiques centre or fair and are given £300 to spend on three items. They have an hour to do this and are assisted in this task by an expert who is themselves an auctioneer. Any leftover money is spent by the expert on a ‘bonus buy’, that they can choose to take up if they wish. These items then go into an auction, with the aim of making as much as possible. Both teams take home any profits and the team which makes the most money wins.

The format is therefore very simple. It is bulletproof, so has soldiered on through 56 series regardless of format tinkering and changes to the presenting team.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The format also leaves plenty of time for historical content. Every show contains a segment where the presenter visits somewhere nearby that is of historical interest, such as a museum or heritage site. Here they talk about a range of historical objects with an expert. These often focus on products of the industrial revolution, and Bargain Hunt’s peripatetic format lends itself to exploring how different parts of the UK were associated with the production of distinctive material goods. Locally produced goods often turn up at the antiques fairs and auctions.

The body of the show itself contains much historical discussion. Every item that the team picks up leads to a story about its provenance or manufacture. Bargain Hunt wears its learning lightly, but is one of the most striking examples in contemporary popular culture where ‘expertise’ is valued and listened to. The presenter, the team’s experts, the auctioneer and the segment guests all have a passion for communicating their specialist knowledge, and the contestants are keen to learn. Bargain Hunt’s consistently high ratings suggests that Britain is not, after all, tired of experts.

The focus on objects is also historically interesting. In recent years, cultural historians have become more interested in material culture, thinking about the role that objects play in society and the effect that they have on human actors. While the focus of Bargain Hunt is necessarily antiquarian – and on the object’s current retail value – there are also frequent discussions about the nature of the object and how it would have been used. Contestants are urged to handle the objects and to assess their material properties, and the object is often a starting point for a potted social history.

I am interested in material culture and use objects in class as a way of getting students to think about the past. The encounter with a past artefact can be very powerful and immediate, and can prompt new questions about the past societies that we are studying. Happily for British TV viewers, this experience can be had every day at 12:15 on BBC1.

Matthew McCormack

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