The Repair Shop frontman Jay Blades MBE talks to Rebecca Pitcairn about famous guests, the North/South divide and why we should all be attempting more DIY this Christmas
What do you look forward to watching on TV during the festive season? For me it’s the Christmas specials of shows that really pull on the heartstrings, such as The Repair Shop, which returns after the success of its 10th series with a one-off special this December.
The show, which is filmed in and around a barn at The Weald and Downland Living Museum, in Singleton, near Chichester, has become one of the BBC’s most successful programmes since it first aired in 2017.
Now watched by over seven million people per episode, The Repair Shop sees members of the public bring in their broken heirlooms to be repaired by a team of 11 experts that includes clock expert Steve Fletcher, antique furniture restorer Will Kirk, ceramics conservator Kirsten Ramsay and, of course, furniture restorer and frontman, Jay Blades.
But as well as members of the general public, Jay and the team occasionally welcome VIPs and celebrities to their South Downs-based workshop. On the most recent series, Dame Judi Dench brought in a broken watch belonging to her late husband, Michael Williams, and His Royal Highness King Charles III also appeared on the show for a one-off special to celebrate the BBC’s centenary.
“When you get famous people like that come in and are just in awe of the show, it’s a real nice thing,” says Jay as we sit down to chat during a quick break in his very hectic filming schedule. At the time of our interview, the King’s appearance, which was filmed before he ascended to the throne, had not yet been publicised so Jay remained tight lipped about what went on during the visit. However, viewers of the special episode, which aired in October, will have seen the pair get on famously as King Charles presented two items for restoration: an 8th-century bracket clock and a 19th-century ceramic vase made for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Despite his brush with royalty, 52-year-old Jay admits it’s the ‘ordinary folk’ who venture into The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s Court Barn – the main setting for The Repair Shop – that make it the success it is. “The guests are all so unique, there’s not one story that’s exactly the same as another one so I love that people all over the country give us their items and trust us with the things they’ve got – it’s really special,” says Jay who last year also set up a workshop in Yorkshire in a bid to balance the North/South divide when it comes to representation on TV.
“I wanted to celebrate the uncelebrated,” he tells me. “There are places in the UK that we don’t celebrate enough and it’s important to hear a different type of voice. What tends to happen is we focus a lot on the south and there is some real talent and some real community in the north.”
While The Repair Shop, which has propelled Jay into the spotlight since the series began filming six years ago, sees members of the public bring in items for restoration, his Yorkshire workshop sees deserving local heroes nominated to receive a bespoke, handmade piece of furniture in recognition of the work they do for their community. “It’s a really beautiful show,” Jay continues. “There are some brilliant characters and the things that they have done for the community have gone way above and beyond.”
Working with local communities and encouraging the people within them to grow is in Jay’s blood. Prior to working in TV, he co-founded charities Street Dreams and Out of the Dark, which helped give disengaged and disadvantaged young people practical skills.
“With [community work] you’re always trying to inspire people to do something different, to better their horizons,” says Jay, who was awarded an MBE for his services to craft in May this year. “And that’s what I want to do when I’m on TV, I want to make a change with the influence I’ve got. There are people out there that are suffering, some in silence, and I want to show them that they can do it.”
Jay himself is no stranger to adversity. He has spoken openly about his struggles with mental health and dyslexia, which went undiagnosed as a child meaning he didn’t learn to properly read or write until just last year – a challenge he documented for the BBC documentary, Learning to Read at 51.
“Only one person knew on [The Repair Shop] set and that was Kirsten [Ramsay],” he admits. “She used to help me by telling me about the emails that came through from the producers because she knew I wouldn’t have read them. I did that documentary to inspire people, to show them that you can make a difference even if you have a vulnerability, whether that’s reading or mental health.”
Last year, with the help of a ghost writer, Jay wrote a memoir, Making It: How Love, Kindness and Community Helped Me Repair My Life, and he has recently published a home improvement book, DIY with Jay, which he says, makes a great Christmas gift for anyone keen to brush-up on their handiwork around the home.
From fixing a dripping tap and choosing the right wall plugs to making new sofa covers or building your own BBQ, it’s a foolproof guide to doing it yourself, interspersed with tales of Jay’s own DIY escapades.
“I want people to understand that fixing stuff is quite simple and everybody starts somewhere,” Jay says. “All of the experts that you see at The Repair Shop were all beginners at some point. No one is born an expert and everyone will have had a DIY disaster somewhere down the line. Some of my first attempts were rubbish! But once you achieve something, something as simple as putting up a shelf or even a picture frame and it isn’t wonky, you can walk past it and feel happy.”
And with the cost of living rising, the ‘make do and mend’ approach is something that,
according to Jay, we should all be taking on wholeheartedly. “We’re going to need to watch the pennies and that means doing it yourself,” he adds. “There’s been that make do and mend culture in the past and all I’m doing with this book is giving you an advantage so you can give it a go yourself and save yourself a couple of quid.”
DIY with Jay: How to Repair and Refresh Your Home is out now, published by Bluebird, RRP £20. All episodes of The Repair Shop and Jay’s Yorkshire Workshop are available to stream on BBC iPlayer
Did you know?
The Court Barn, the setting for The Repair Shop, gets particularly freezing during the winter. “We each have two water bottles up our jumpers during filming,” Jay admits.
Despite its TV fame, The Court Barn is not The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s most popular building. Bayleaf, a timber-framed Wealden hall house with a first-floor privy jutting out of the side is considered the museum’s most iconic. “I’ve always thought it is so strange, that people used to go to the toilet and it would drop down into their garden!” says Jay.
While Mary Berry has never appeared on The Repair Shop, Jay says she is a huge fan of the show: “When I filmed with her for Mary Berry Save Christmas, she told me she sits down every Wednesday to watch it and if she’s off filming, her husband doesn’t watch it until she gets home so they can watch it together.”