The new episode of Grand Designs (Channel 4) will be a classic as soon as Kevin McCloud sets the scene – a graveyard in southwest London – you know.
Surely, “out of respect, out of fear of desecration,” McCloud says, conjuring up the possibility for a gothic drama, no one will build on such a site. “But that’s exactly what my husband will do.” It’s not exactly what his husband is going to do – even for Grand Plans, the thought of digging up graves to create a “baronial architectural masterpiece” is a little much – but his husband, former Army Captain Justin Maxwell Stuart, is very pleased to live next to a graveyard and has a grand plan to do so.
At the start of Season 20 of the always reassuring, always optimistic show, we hear that the new builder/dreamer/victim of Grand Designs has spent £ 1.8 million on the keeper’s lodge of a Victorian cemetery and an old toilet block next door. The idea is to demolish the toilets, build a new extension in their place, and then extend the neo-Gothic listed lodge by digging a large amount of ground under it to create a massive mega cellar. Anyone with even a passing interest in the grotesque excesses of the richest residents of London would know all about mega cellars, where by digging deeper and floor after floor is added to old houses
Local journals also have concerns about the practice from locals, but here the neighbors of Maxwell Stuart are relatively undemanding, buried six feet below them. So what could go wrong? It’s the problem that makes Grand Plans so worth seeing, the promise of hubris in the midst of ruins, of steel and glass dreams weakened by human stupidity. From the outset, the issues confronting Maxwell Stuart are illuminated. The cottage is a listed building; the cemetery itself is a sensitive site for a large-scale construction project and needs special approvals for the required machinery. The cottage is a listed building. He is hoping to finish the whole job in a year.
I will watch a montage of the attempts of Kevin McCloud to suppress some sort of facial reaction every few minutes to the wildly jumbled plans and financial consequences laid out. This show refuses to be stingy with money, which is a significant reason for its success.
Maxwell Stuart has predicted that, on top of the initial expense, the work would cost another £ 1.6 million. Via savings and a loan from his mother, he raised the first part; the second came from a labyrinthine tangle of mortgages which I did not understand.
But with this type of construction project, as is always the case, time drags on, costs escalate, and even a private gate to the cemetery becomes a problem.
If he’s concerned about looking into a “catastrophic financial black hole” in 2016, well, wait and see what happens when the pandemic arrives. It’s a fascinating insight into the aristocracy’s peculiar economies.
A trip to the 900-year-old ancestral home of Maxwell Stuart on the Scottish border shows why his aspirations are so high. “This is what I imagine a real house would look like,” he says before crouching through an escape tunnel used by the Scots’ Mary Queen, in front of a huge old dump.
McCloud explains that old-money guys are often rich in assets but low in cash, and it’s really unlikely that it will ever be completed as the lodge project drags on and on, particularly when the owner keeps embellishing his plans. We get the feeling that Maxwell Stuart has hit his absolute financial cap, but there is no doubt that he would sacrifice the giant waterfall chain-link that sits in the basement next to the swimming pool…. Even McCloud, comparing the basement to a skyscraper or a parking garage, seems surprised by the apparently needless scale of it all. The trick of this series is that you hope everything will work out in spite of everything, and you cheer for the person who dares to take on such a job, who believes that he can do it quickly and reasonably cheaply, and who might just pull it off, thanks to the absolute devotion of his staff.
Even if logic doesn’t allow it, Maxwell Stuart is thoroughly hands-on with the whole thing, and it’s hard not to wish him the best. Even though, in 2020, he is not quite as cheerful and light.