Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners – Channel 4

Since acquiring mild OCD, in the form of colouring-in books by Johanna Basford (Enchanted Forest) wherein I must not colour over the lines, or accidentally create messy smudges, via resting the side of my colouring-in hand on the page, where it may gradually become covered in crayon (expert OCD colour-inners use a piece of blotting type paper on which to rest the colouring hand, to avoid a smudging calamity.)  And where I spend ages choosing just the right colour combo and then place my chosen pencils in an orderly row, with most used pencil first, and so on and so on……..I now feel a certain affinity with the poor, lost souls on OCC.

OCC is a programme I’ve not watched before and the watching of it is a direct result of the colouring- in mania.  Because I now watch telly on an evening, whilst colouring in, rather than spending hours on the laptop, not watching TV.

And what a good programme it is – or maybe that’s just middle-aged, menopausal me, because these days I’m plagued with extreme emotional reactions to just about anything that’s shown on the Box.  And last night I was welling up like a good ‘un.

OCC features the paradoxical problem of people afflicted by an unhealthy need to keep their homes as healthily clean as possible.  These cleaning maniacs are then paired with members at the opposite end of the cleaning spectrum, i.e. those who never lift a finger.

A device registering the hygiene level of your home was used routinely in this programme and our OCC’ers registered ‘clean enough to eat off’ every single time.

This programme is, of course, a resurrection of the format used in How Clean Is Your House, which featured Kim and Aggie, many feather dusting moons ago, back in 2003.  I used to watch it avidly, back in the days when the TV was permanently on due to the presence of sons No’s 1, 2 and 3.

Last night’s OCC saw Sandra from Wales paired with Karl from Norfolk.  Karl lived in the narrow boat from hell, as Sandra was later to find out.  First we got a look round Sandra’s well-kept home.  Sandra was a robust, middle-aged, buxom woman with jet black dyed hair and the fashion sense of a teenage girl, which meant she looked like a sort of matronly Madam, which was fitting, considering her bedroom looked like a suburban brothel (it was clear Sandra was blissfully unaware of her décor disasters.)

Sandra was a big fan of the well placed cushion and, since cushions were a prominent feature chez Sandra, it was almost a full time job just getting the cushions sorted.  For this Sandra used a tape measure, ensuring optimum cushion placement.   Likewise the bedspread needed to hang so many inches over the side of the bed, and Sandra again whipped out her tape measure, a bit like your average Dominatrix would whip out her whip.

Sandra ran a café but, it later transpired, regularly turned up late for work due to the ritual cleaning malarkey, so thank goodness for her partner of 5 years (his name escapes me.)  This bloke also ran the café and, on top of that, clearly had the patience of a saint.  For he had to live by Sandra’s household rules.  Rules which almost exclusively featured the wearing of slippers.

Sandra had a thing about ‘outdoors’ and ‘indoors.’  No outdoor clothes must ever be worn indoors for fear of contamination.  As soon as he set foot in the door, Sandra’s bloke was forced to take off his shoes on the hall mat.  He then padded across to the hall stairs, where his first pair of slippers were waiting.  Donning these slippers, he went upstairs and put on pyjamas, came back down and put on a pair of house slippers and sat morosely on the couch, whilst a channel 4 member asked if all this hyper sanitisation bothered him.  His reply was that he was happy so long as Sandra was happy.  Maybe Sandra owned the café and kept him in gainful employment?   Who knows?

Sandra lived in fear of ‘contamination.’  To this end she also kept three hoovers on the go almost permanently.  There were three hoovers to avoid ‘cross contamination’ between hoovers.  I still have no idea what she meant by this.

Sandra was set the task of cleaning up Karl’s narrow boat.  Karl hadn’t lifted a finger in years and, as a result, his narrow boat had got narrower and narrower, so that Karl could barely move for the clutter.   Karl was not into the consumerist nature of our society and was also a nature lover, allowing the spiders free range over the entire boat because ‘all living things are equal’. This had resulted in a spectacular build up of cobwebs, rather like the ones draped all over Miss Havisham (Great Expectations.)  The slovenly piece de resistance (or piss de resistance, as I’m calling it, the reason for which will become clear later) was his miniscule bathroom.   The bathroom, along with the mould encrusted food lying about in what passed as Karl’s kitchen, made Sandra heave and once or twice she came close to chucking up.

Meanwhile,  Maxine, an OCC ex-nurse, was sent to rescue Dianne, an ex-librarian, from the perils of her two-up, two-down in Norwich, which was currently doing a good impression of the local tip.  Maxine had a full time job but found time to hoover the entire house every day; to arrange the glasses in her kitchen cupboards into matching sets; to arrange her tinned food into matching tins, ensuring the labels all faced forward; to apply baby oil to her chrome hob so that it sparkled like it’d just come out of the show room (baby oil was Maxine’s top cleaning tip, and very proud of this discovery she was too.)  Maxine also hoovered her two sons, whilst they were sitting at their computers, headsets on, seemingly oblivious.

Dianne, 70 years old, was a lovely, gentle character, who had travelled all over the world and was a dab hand at sketching and painting.  For Dianne housework was mindless drudgery, but her slovenliness had now got to the point where she could no longer ask anyone around due to acute embarrassment.

After our OCC’ers got going with the cleaning, we were given gradual psychological insights as to why the CBB lot (Can’t Be Bothered) had got into such a mess.

Still young’ish Karl on the narrow boat had been a carer to his disabled mum.  In a wildly surreal moment Sandra came across half a leg, whilst cleaning, and tactfully asked Karl if it was his, being as she’d not seen him with his trousers off (!)   Karl replied that it was his dead mother’s leg (for a horrific split second I’d thought he’d meant her ACTUAL leg) and that he kept it as a morbid (to my mind) keepsake.  I felt definite shades of Psycho (1960) there.

It then transpired that Karl had had to wash up from the age of 5, and that his mother always made him do it all over again as it didn’t meet her standards (which it wouldn’t, considering Karl HAD BEEN 5.)  Wondering how the wearing of an artificial leg had stopped his mother from washing up, and thinking that such behaviour sort of verged on child abuse, I immediately started welling up at the thought of 5 year old Karl being forced to scrub dishes.  However, Karl determinedly held on to the artificial leg (complete with old trainer) and Sandra, in her new found empathy for Karl, gave the leg and trainer a good clean, tying the laces in a bow (‘cos ladies like bows’) before plonking it on a window ledge like some kind of macabre ornament.  Things just kept on getting surrealer and surrealer.

Karl’s pitiful tale set Sandra off, as the camera crew filmed her outside the boat bemoaning her own prejudice re: karl and his filth.  Such was her emotional distress that she started talking about herself in the third person, berating the fact that ‘Sandra wasn’t a very nice person’  etc etc to have passed such quick judgement on the alternative, hippy Karl.  And, in a moment of epiphany, Sandra made a promise to Sandra, to ease up a bit on cushion placement and surface wipe down, when she got home.

Sandra had 4 days to sort out Karl’s floating health hazard and left the bathroom till last.  Here she was confronted by a tray that Karl placed underneath the loo, because the loo leaked.  Every time Karl ‘took a pish’ some ‘pish’ ended up on this tray.  Karl had NEVER cleaned the tray.  The cleaning of said tray was when Sandra nearly threw up.  Karl couldn’t understand this, being that the tray ‘was just a bit of pish.’   (‘Pish’ appeared to be Karl-ese for piss.)

Back in Norwich, Maxine was beginning to warm to the slightly dotty and slightly not quite there Dianne, as we learned that her husband had died 20 years ago, leaving Dianne alone and with no urge to keep the house clean, when it was just her living in it.

The tears started rolling down my cheeks again, as I thought of poor, lonely Dianne filling up her house with empty drinks bottles, empty food cartoons and piles of clothes on the floor, in an attempt to fill up the empty space left behind by the death of her husband.  I then had my own OCC based panic when I realised the tears were in danger of dropping onto my pristine colouring-in page, and rushed out to get the box of Kleenex.

Upon hearing of Dianne’s bereavement 20 years ago, the camera crew filmed Maxine outside, as she realised that her obsessive need for order was getting in the way of living life and that she did not want the words ‘she kept a good house’ on her gravestone.  The gravestone thought caused Maxine and I to break down, so I had to pack the colouring book in.

The more Maxine found out about Dianne’s life, the more the thought of a life spent mostly cleaning weighed heavily on her mind, and she determined to go out more and actually do stuff when she got back home from work on an evening.  She also vowed to keep in touch with Dianne, feeling she may have found a lifelong friend.

The people featured in last night’s episode were all suffering from undiagnosed OCD, or undiagnosed anxiety/depression (in the case of Karl and Dianne.)  Some commentators feel that turning quite severe mental health issues into telly-based entertainment is exploitative and in bad taste.  I think it’s quite the reverse.  At least these issues are being discussed and an attempt being made to understand them.

Sandra, Maxine, Karl and Dianne may have been living under a burden of self imposed madness, but they were also lovely, kind and caring people.  That’s not exploiting their mental health issues – it’s allowing us to see past those issues to the person beneath.

(One thing.   I wasn’t keen on the ‘professional’ cleaning team made up of OCD sufferers, most of whom looked like heavily made up, wannabee reality TV stars.)


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