An incredibly moving event in Sheffield

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SUCH is the hassle of moving house that many wish that they could just go to sleep and wake up to find it has all been done.

That’s exactly what happened to Sheffield’s Gemma Flint as viewers to the Channel 4 programme, Secret Removers, will see tomorrow.

Unbeknown to her, partner Keith Russon had volunteered them for the series in which a team of designers hijacks a family’s belongings while they are away and moves them into their new home and gives it a make-over.

Keith and Flint had found a new house in Stradbroke Avenue, Richmond, not far from where they were living off Prince of Wales Road, Darnall, to give themselves and two sons, Bailey, 14, and five-year-old Finlay more space. Builder Keith had done up their home and was planning to do the same at the new place, a three-bedroom, semi-detached property. One of the concerns about the move, however, was the fact that Finlay has autism and is very sensitive to noise which would inevitably come with a removal operation, let alone building work.

Leading the Secret Removers team, designer Alison Cork and antiques expert George Johnson first visited the family under the guise of market researchers.

“We ask them about their tastes and interests and we get to meet them in person,” explains Cork. “For me as a designer I look for important clues. I want people to be really happy and don’t want them to dissolve into floods of tears Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen style when they see the make-over.”

The next step is to get the family out of the way while they set to work, in this case making over the main living room and Finlay’s bedroom – in which they aimed to provide both a stimulating environment and a calm area around his bed. 

The big moment in each show is obviously when the family come into the new house to find it changed and their possessions reorganised .

“There’s a hidden camera at the first meeting and the next time they arrive through the door of their new home into a bank of lights and cameras with George and me hiding in a separate room,” says Cork. “You get varying degress of enthusiasm on camera because they are in a state of shock.”

“I was overwhelmed and got very emotional at first,” says Gemma. “I thought it was fabulous idea, I have always wanted to go and do something like that and I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

She never guessed what was going on. “Keith said the removal firm had let us down and were double booked. I was so stressed because we were in the middle of a chain. I was fighting both ends and everything kept getting in our way.

“So Keith said, ‘let’s go away for a couple of days’ and we went to Manchester and stayed in a nice hotel. I didn’t have a clue about the show.

“I know Keith and just assumed he was doing it for my sake. Something like this was a bit out of character because he can’t hide anything normally.”

She thinks it was a great idea. “Finlay can be disturbed by noise and one of the reasons for doing it was the calming situation.

“Finlay enjoys his new room. Before he was in a cot bed and now he has a full-sized bed. He had no space and his Wii had to be in our bedroom and now he has it himself and he’s not jumping on my bed, he has his own space and can play with his toys.”

The TV team enjoyed the challenge set by the family’s circumstances. Says Alison Cork: “I had to understand things about autism. Change can be unsettling and so are certain colours. You can’t use white or yellow. I also wanted to put something tactile into the room so it would engage and stimulate and also provide a quiet area. We also introduced fibre-optic lights in the bedroom for Finlay

“My job is to unlock their design wishes. Most people lack the courage to do what they really want. It wouldn’t be much of a programme if I just painted it magnolia and threw in a few cushions.”

Likewise George Jackson who says : “I took quite an interest in Finlay’s room because we had to get it right. I thought what I would have liked if it was mine as a boy so I provided lots of fun things for him. It was nice to be able to do something special for someone.”

Since the programme was recorded a few months ago Gemma is still happy with her new home, although she admits: “I have since changed a few things – you have your own personal taste.”

Secret Removers is on Channel 4 every day at 11am and the Sheffield episode is on Friday.