As he celebrates his 100th episode of Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud explains how it’s taken its toll – and turned him into a grumpy old Victor Meldrew
22:25 GMT, 19 October 2012
The thinking woman’s heart-throb If he is, Kevin McCloud is oblivious. Dressed in old jeans, T-shirt, hoody and trainers, he certainly doesn’t appear alluring today – though the charming, sometimes critical but always well-mannered Grand Designs presenter’s army of female fans might disagree.
‘A friend of mine once wrote a silly article about all these metrosexuals like David Beckham wearing sarongs, and she described me as a “heteropolitan”. I don’t know what that means. I think it was a joke.’
I take it to mean a blend of unabashed heterosexual and cosmopolitan sophisticate, but he scoffs at the idea. ‘I don’t think I’m a sophisticate.’ Isn’t he aware he’s seen as posh male totty ‘No woman has ever come up to me and told me that. Sorry to disappoint you.’
British television presenter and architecture expert Kevin McCloud celebrates his 100th episode of grand designs
It’s not a topic Kevin, who celebrated the 100th episode of Grand Designs last week, is comfortable talking about. ‘No, not at all. It’s weird, being on TV. Because you’re in people’s sitting rooms they feel as if they know you really well, because it seems like you’re physically in their lives.’
Kevin, 53, is popular because he’s clever, rugged, reassuring and seems capable of turning his hand to any practical task. But he’s wary of fame. ‘I don’t think I’m a celebrity,’ he says.
‘If I welcomed people into my lovely home every week in the pages of a magazine they’d soon see how incredibly dull it is. It’s important to maintain a bit of mystique. The more of your private life you put into the public domain, the smaller your private life becomes.’
That’s why he won’t discuss his wife, Suzanna (Zani) and their children, Milo, 14, and Elsie, ten, and his two children from a previous relationship, Hugo, 24, and Grace, 21.
The family live in an Elizabethan farmhouse in Somerset that he describes as ‘an old hovel’, though I suspect he’s not being entirely truthful. The bane of his life is spending so much time away from his family.
‘The one great loss to me in 15 years of filming is that I don’t see my kids enough.’ He says he’s been known to work 52 weeks a year, and he squeezes family holidays around his filming schedule.
He inherited his enthusiasm for making things from his engineer father
So if he’s not the person women in particular think he is, who is the real Kevin McCloud ‘I’m quite shy. Television presents an amplified version of yourself. When I’m on camera I’m pumping more adrenaline, I’m being a bit more engaging than I am in everyday conversation, but that’s normal, isn’t it Otherwise nobody would want to watch. I’m grumpier in real life too, because TV requires so much energy, so inevitably you get a bit crotchety. You have to put a lid on it otherwise you’d turn into Victor Meldrew.’
He inherited his enthusiasm for making things from his engineer father, who built his own house and was forever taking machines apart on the kitchen table.
After attending comprehensive school in Bedfordshire, Kevin trained as an opera singer in Florence before studying French and Italian at Cambridge, switching to philosophy then graduating in history of art and architecture. After university he ran a successful lighting design business, became a bestselling author of books on decorating and since 1999 has been a TV fixture on Grand Designs and its many offshoots.
Kevin insists that Grand Designs is more about human struggle and achievement than bricks and mortar.
‘I think the addictive thing about the programme is that the people in it are living right on the edge, selling everything they have and pushing at an idea that’s unexplored and is really going to stretch them. I still get excited by great stories because I’m first and foremost a maker of TV programmes. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the building is, if it’s a badly told story I’d be mortified. I wouldn’t be doing my job.’
What interests him most is the characters on the show. The 100th episode featured property developer Leigh Osborne’s conversion of a Victorian water tower in south London.
‘I thought that story had everything,’ says Kevin. ‘Conservation, ridiculous debt – he borrowed his grandmother’s credit card and owes 95,000 just to finish this thing – ludicrous ambition and extraordinary vision. It’s crazy but he pulls it off.
‘My job is to be the viewers’ friend and say, “It’s all right, you on the sofa are not mad, it’s them.”
‘After 100 episodes I’ve learnt to have a great deal more respect for our self-builders than I used to. That is partly as a result of doing my own project [he built an estate of 42 eco-homes in Swindon in Wiltshire last year], but also because they’re baring their soul on television. Who would want to have all their mistakes writ large on the screen like that I think it’s a very brave thing to do.
‘My job is to be the viewers’ friend and say, “It’s all right, you on the sofa are not mad, it’s them.” My job is not to side with the grand designers. To some of them I can be as abusive as you could imagine. I’ll say, “You’re going about it in the wrong way” and they just laugh.
'They have a strange glint in their eye. It’s as if they’ve joined a cult. They’re off on this fantastic journey and no one is going to stop them. I think the appeal of Grand Designs is that it’s a big adventure we all think we could go on.’
Grand Designs, Wednesday, 9pm, C4.