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I Am Obsessed With The Tiny TVs Of ‘Escape To The Country’

What do the words “escape to the country” conjure for you? A nice weekend trip with your sweetheart, maybe, a cute cottage, and a $4.99 bottle of wine left on an Airbnb countertop. Rolling hillsides and trees? Sheep? White flight? Brexit?  

For me, the words mean only one thing: Preposterously small televisions.

Escape to the Country, a BBC show that has been on British airwaves for more than 20 years, is at first glance a normal house-hunting show. A couple living in a big city (or sometimes just a town that is experiencing more development than they would like) look at three houses in the countryside. Somehow this takes 45 minutes.

Watching Escape to the Country might be the fastest way for an American to understand British countryside life. Not Midsomer Murders—we’re actually not killing and fucking each other’s wives that much—nor Hot Fuzz, wonderful movie though it is. What you really need is something that is almost too boring to watch, but in a nice way that makes you feel sleepy instead of the bad way that makes you pissed off. You need to see a couple in their 60s looking at cottages in villages with names like Mavis Enderby and Barton Fossett. (Only one of those is real; see if you can guess which.)

To an American, there may be things about Escape to the Country that seem very unusual. The open secret about American shows like House Hunters is that the couple has already bought one of the houses; the producers just send them around another two because the suspense of not knowing which they’ll pick makes good TV, giving them lines like “Wow, nice kitchen here” or “Hmm, I’m not sure about this bathroom, Dennis.” What if I told you, my fellow Americans, that in most episodes of Escape to the Country, the couple you’ve spent most of an hour with don’t even buy one of the houses? 

What if I told you that a lot of the time, the show doesn’t even tell you one way or the other? The host says something like, “Well, David and Jean decided not to make an offer on any of the houses, and we wish them the best of luck in their house-hunting journey.” Sometimes it’s even more vague, and the host will smile and say, “After two days here in Gloucestershire, I think Mary and Martin have a lot to think about, as they look for their new home in … the country.”

And that’s it. Theme song plays, credits roll. You’re cut loose, back into the wasteland of British daytime TV. No drama, no resolution, no anything. Nothing bad happens, and nothing good happens. You are just 45 minutes closer to death. Think of how the Great British Bake Off contestants are always intensely supportive of one another and cry when they leave, compared to the scripted animosity of an American show like Forged in Fire. It’s like that, but if GBBO was also really boring.

Yet I find it utterly addictive. I could watch this shit—and it is shit—all day. I love watching a pair of pale boomers politely say they’re “not sure about” a place they clearly hate, or describe a six-by-nine-foot bedroom with a sloping roof and a barely full-size bed as “a good size.” I love learning that there’s a place called Grewelthorpe. 

But the true key to watching this show, apart from making peace with not knowing whether you are actually enjoying something or not, is to play your own little game while you watch it. If I was 19, this would have been an excellent drinking game. In my 30s, it is simply a little treat all by itself, something to pass the time until I can go to bed. 

Here’s how it works: Watch the show, and look for bad tellies.

The TVs might be very small, or very old. You often see actual cathode-ray tube TVs (most of the episodes I see on YouTube are from the mid-2010s, long past Acceptable CRT Time). Frequently they are placed such that the sofa doesn’t directly face the screen, and sometimes a chair or a set of stairs is firmly in the way of the TV. There are tiny kitchen tellies, tiny bedroom tellies mounted to the wall or perched on a dresser, perpendicular to the bed. I have yet to see a tiny bathroom telly, but I know it’s out there.

For example, please see this TV from a £695,000 ($1.1 million in 2014 dollars) house in Gloucestershire:

A very weird and ugly British living room with a hideous purple accent wall, in which a small TV sits in a recessed archway in a corner, facing an armchair, all but totally invisible to the sofa that provides 75 percent of the room's seating.
Via YouTube

The single chair facing it is one of the most baffling things I have seen on this show, which is an honor I bestow once every two or three episodes. Chair And TV Just For Daddy? Absolutely. Great stuff.

Sometimes, the TVs are so poorly placed that you might miss them if you don’t pay attention, like this hidden one facing no seats in Northumberland:

A very ugly room with bare white walls, but featuring a charming recessed bookcase in the middle of the frame. A man is entering the frame on the left, where you can just barely see, poking out from around the side of what appears to be a huge plaster hearth (?), the edge of a comically small flat-panel TV that would be visible to a likewise comically small portion of the room.
Via YouTube

I see you, little buddy! Can’t hide from me!

Another bafflingly placed TV, in a corner and facing no seats, in Devon:

A large living room with a sloped ceiling and skylight. An outdated overstuffed sofa faces a similar loveseat, with a coffee table between them. In the background, on a small console table, is a flatscreen TV; none of the seats in the room are even vaguely angled toward it. Five minutes of watching anything on this TV would give you a month of neck pains.
Via YouTube

A huge old CRT, also in Devon:

A room featuring an absolutely gigantic stone hearth, taller than a normal adult, hosting a wood-burning stove. Against the far wall, on a hideous little wood-paneled end table thing, sits a gray cathode-ray tube TV of the kind that was newish circa the year 2002.
Via YouTube

And here, we have a TV placed between two single beds, facing neither of them, in Dorset:

A bleak under-decorated British bedroom with two parallel single beds facing the same direction. In between them, on a nightstand, is a small flatscreen TV... facing the same direction as the beds, so that someone laying with their head on the pillow on either bed could not hope to see the screen, which would be by their ear.
Via YouTube

If you don’t find these TVs as funny as I do, fuck you. But there’s plenty else to enjoy about the show. Every episode features at least one little foray into the surrounding area to meet a local guy who makes artisanal cheese, or runs a community orchard, or something with boats. It is often something with boats, actually. The producers have the house-hunting couple ask them questions about what they're doing, and they frequently seem extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes if an English couple is looking for a home in Scotland or Wales, they’ll have them talk to someone who speaks Scots or Welsh and try to learn a bit of it. I would rather eat beans on toast for every meal for the rest of my life than attempt to do this on national television.

There are dozens of episodes of this show on YouTube, and I believe this is the best way to watch. You can find it on Tubi or the Roku Channel, but it’s missing the charming additions made to the YouTube versions, intended to evade copyright detection. One channel I used to watch, since obliterated by the jackbooted thugs at Broadcasting House, added dashboard footage of a vehicle making its way up a mountain road, set to upbeat, extremely loud stock music. Others that are as yet still on the site will turn the quality down on short stretches of audio, or put short bits of nice classical music over the transitions between scenes. I have no idea if this actually works, but it’s always lovely to see the ever-evolving tactics of content pirates. (If anyone at the BBC is reading this, no you’re not.)

So the next time you feel anxious, or need something to put on while you scroll your phone, or have people over and it’s your turn at the YouTube controls, I insist you try Escape to the Country. It is soothing, completely inoffensive, and very stupid. It is peppered with weird little TVs. Watch it on a normal one.

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