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Room to Improve: house whisperer Dermot Bannon goes to battle over a pergola

Television: the magic ought to be fading, yet the series is thriving – and Bannon’s mix of charm and chutzpah plays big part

You say pergola, I say baloney – let’s call the whole thing off. That, in a nutshell, is the first episode of the returning Room To Improve (RTÉ One 9.35pm). Dermot Bannon, still unchallenged as Ireland’s most famous architect, wants to bring innovative design to the hinterlands of Tullamore and almost comes unstuck in the process. It’s an Offaly big adventure sprinkled with building site melodrama.

Would we have it any other way? Of course not. The fun in RTÉ's home improvement blockbuster flows, as is traditional, from the tension between Bannon and his clients, in this instance Amy and Conor. He’s keen on a big, fancy pergola for their revamped farmhouse, which originally belonged to Conor’s grandmother. They think he’s barking bonkers. The rest of us are invited to sit back and enjoy them hashing it out.

“The sheer size of the pergola ...” says Amy, from Cork, and engaged to Offaly-born Defence Forces member Conor. Bannon – the country’s pre-eminent house whisperer – is keen on plonking it in front of a converted shed. He promises that doing so will tie together the revamped outhouse to the rest of the build, which has a €325,000 budget.

The couple are nonplussed. They aren’t the only ones. “Oh Jesus – granny doesn’t like that one!” exclaims Bannon when a spectral owl hoot interrupts one of his reveries about the redesign.


In the end, a compromise is reached. Bannon gets his pergola, albeit smaller than initially planned. But it is still sufficiently large to do its job – which is, as Bannon says, to “tie together” the project. Everyone is shocked at how smartly it stands there, apart from Bannon. To his credit, he manages to not look too smug.

This is the 16th season of Room To Improve and, really, the magic ought to be fading. Yet the series has endured. And that’s despite a format unchanged since the early presidency of Barack Obama.

Part of that is down to Bannon, who remains a picture of charm and chutzpah. He loves what he does and isn’t bothered about the occasional disagreement. And he believes that smart architecture can lead Ireland to a better place.

Amy and Conor, who are presumably not unfamiliar with Bannon and Room To Improve, know what they are in for too. The pergola crisis is overcome with good grace.

They have a few things to teach him, as well. Conor is due to deploy to Kosovo on peacekeeping duties. Before doing so he shares with Bannon his passion for old bric-a-brac. He takes the architect to an odds ‘n ends shop where an old butter churn is pride of place.

“He has that love for things. It’s not because they are old, beautiful things. It’s because they are well-made and of a time. He has that bug in him. I thought it was fascinating to see someone of Conor’s generation who was into all that,” says Bannon. He is having a spiritual experience in a scrapyard.

There’s a winning human component bound up in all the property palaver. The farmhouse, as Bannon is reminded, was once the domain of Conor’s grandmother. We see an old photograph of her leaning against the windows. It suggests a formidable woman with a soft side just under the surface.

“She’d be delighted to see somebody back living here,” says Conor as they survey the completed house, which comes in on budget. It’s a sprinkling of sentimentality amid the banter about balustrades. It’s also the magic ingredient that continues to set Room To Improve apart from lesser makeover shows.