Channel 4 is getting into the antiques game. But don’t expect to see cotton-frocked frumps queuing up in front of English Heritage sites to have their Satsuma tea service valued by a nice lady in a crew-neck tweed jacket. Equally, Four Rooms (8pm, Tuesday) is anything but a platform for jowly presenters to air their best puns, or daft mother/daughter teams to get on t’telly. Oh no. Four Rooms is a hilariously contrived peek at the catty business end of the industry.
So how does it work? A seller delivers their item to an over-lit lobby area where four top dealers with large egos and unpleasant personalities look it over. Afterwards, the experts retire to separate rooms to consider their offer, possibly while stroking a flat-faced white cat. Next, the object’s owner visits the potential buyers--in whatever order they like--to negotiate a deal. Each expert is obliged to offer something. The cunning catch is that when a punter leaves a room having dismissed the bid, there’s no going back. It’s like house hunting with a really mean agent.
To ensure that our interest doesn’t wane--as it does, say, when an Antiques Roadshow boffin bleats on about the provenance of a frilly pot--items that make it onto the show are either quirky or controversial. Very few of them are actually antiques. You’d almost definitely stand a better chance of making it onto the show with a sandwich bag full of Pete Doherty’s toenail clippings than a Ming vase.
Presumably, part of the backstage area is give over to an off-camera Antiques Idol. Delusional owners of glum pottery and brown furniture are fed into an incinerator chute while anyone with a embalmed celebrity body part, a Banksy or, as is the case in the first episode, a Francis Bacon canvas with more than half the picture cut out, is bumped to the next round. It would add a much-needed layer to Four Rooms if this bit was included.
As it is, everything builds to the part where the dealers either make a fawning offer, or sneer and insult the vendor by bidding low. It's pure Dragons’ Den, minus the fun inter-expert bickering. The most popular connoisseur is Emma Hawkins, who specialism is anything creepy. Fittingly, her chair is made of antlers and her tone is high-end dominatrix. Emma’s male colleagues, meanwhile, sit comfortably on the buffoon spectrum. One tries to secure a cheap lot by getting an owner to gamble on a coin toss. These manufactured, saloon-bar sequences (I dearly hope there are lots more to come) are grippingly awful. Next week I’m praying for a pistol fight, or for someone to offer up their wife as payment.
But most of the time our experts build tension less adventurously, merely by being aloof or horrid. Look out for the ex-military pensioner who rocks up with the broken bronze Hitler bust, which someone gave him after World War II. It's made to look like the poor chap is trying to cash in on the Holocaust, but he simply hadn’t thought it through. Surely a producer could have taken him aside and explained the item’s inappropriateness instead of sticking him in front of sharp, PR-aware experts to be humiliated. You wouldn’t get that on Bargain Hunt.