Man with a plan
HE’S the Bear Grylls of architecture, the man who made building approvals sexy, the tall, dashing presenter the British press loves to describe as ‘‘ the thinking woman’s crumpet’’.
His program, Grand Designs, has inspired everything from underground eco-mansions to rowdy drinking games.
But speaking to Kevin McCloud ( pictured) on the telephone from his 500-year-old farmhouse in England’s West Country, you get the impression he’s more bemused than impressed by his phenomenal success.
‘‘ I prefer the thinking woman’s scone to crumpet,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘ Or jam roll.
‘‘ I do get a lot of fan mail, but it’s from 16-year-old boys who want to be architects. And that’s nice.
‘‘ I think it’s all a fiction. It’s done to wind me up.’’
Of course, McCloud’s being modest. If nothing else, he’s taken high-concept housing design out of the pay-TV niche market and into prime time.
It’s an achievement that makes the softly-spoken 53-year-old very happy.
‘‘ My mission, if I have one with Grand Designs, is to get people to spell architecture without a capital A,’’ he says.
‘‘ And to be able to use that ’ A word’ on television, which I’m now able to do.’’
McCloud grew up in a ‘‘ typical badly designed, badly insulated’’ 1960s house his parents bought off the plan.
‘‘ My earliest memory is standing in the upstairs toilet and looking through the gaps in the floorboards to the kitchen below,’’ he recalls. But it was a house that gave him his first experience of renovation. ‘‘ It was a tiny house, and I had the tiniest room in the building,’’ McCloud says.
‘‘ When I got to six foot tall – when I was about 14 – my dad had to extend the room into the stairwell so that I could sleep in it.’’
After university, McCloud gravitated towards set design and theatre lighting. He set up his own successful lighting business, coming to television rather late in life.
‘‘ The process of making television is actually quite humiliating,’’ he says.
‘‘ There are a lot of people in their 20s telling you what to do: ‘ Oh, could you move your shoulder this way a bit?’ But I’m blessed because I’m not a generic TV producer and I don’t have to do game shows.’’
What he does instead is create hour-long real-life dramas about that most stressful of human endeavours – building a house.
McCloud visits each build about seven times, with the production crew making as many as 20 visits. Along the way they capture the melodrama and inevitable pitfalls, from the objections of ‘‘ Nimby’’ neighbours to cash flow problems and bolshie builders.
McCloud insists no part of Grand Designs is scripted.
‘‘ It’s never hard to find the drama. You don’t need to fabricate it,’’ he says.
‘‘ Having said that, we won’t take on a project unless there’s an element of risk.
‘‘ If there’s a financial risk then there’s usually some kind of design risk – they’re trying things that have never been tried before, or using unproven technology. Or doing something highly personal that’s a little bit wacky.
‘‘ Of course we get people writing in and saying, ‘ I make a lot of money and I’m going to build myself a massive house’. Well thank you, that’s very interesting. But I don’t think our viewers would be interested in it.’’