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Minister for interiors
Guy Kelly meets Laurence Llewelyn-bowen as Changing Rooms returns
‘Sorry, Guy, it appears you have caught me in middle-aged rant mode this morning. It is unbecoming, but one cannot help it when one has irritations,’ Laurence Llewelyn-bowen says, marching me from the gates of his 17thcentury Cotswold pile to his front door.
Said gates have just electronically parted to reveal Llewelyn-bowen – hair fabulous, grey-flecked goatee and sideburns hewn to Cavalier perfection, bespoke cerulean suit with black-and-white boating stripes a knockout, black buckled boots gleaming – like the arrival of a particularly scenestealing pantomime villain.
The gates should be remote-controlled, you see, ‘But I can’t find any bloody dibbers! We have a gazillion and they just vanish… An-nyway,’ Yes, anyway. Once inside Roberts House – a seven-bedroomed, Gradeii listed property that once belonged to a founding member of the Quaker movement, where Llewelyn-bowen and his family have lived since 2007 – the rants don’t stop. But they’re never unbecoming: he is outstanding company for a Monday morning.
Minimalism, the rise of ‘greige’, Marie Kondo, Boris Johnson (‘There’s a sort of cloud of style antimatter that seems to hang over him… He’s like that kid in Peanuts who had dust following him around’), ‘Carrie Antoinette’ (‘Just show us what you did and we’d be fine with it!’), Grand Designs, his attempts to get himself sacked… Llewelyn-bowen has never had much of a filter, but at 56, he’s fully discarded whatever remained of it – perhaps the only time he’s ever decided less is more.
We settle in a living room lined with art books. Llewelyn-bowen leans forward and sets off. His ‘favourite thing in the world’ is to talk about himself. To interrupt with questions is like trying to slow a runaway train by chucking Ritz crackers at it.
The house is everything you’d expect: decadent, Gothic, a bit mad, but a proper home, too. His own LLB Damask Dangereuse wallpaper in the shade Green Tea covers much of the ground floor. There is reclaimed furniture, outré ornaments, 18th-century paintings, merry clashes of eras and prints, and every colour or pattern the mind could conceive.
The whole clan live here, comprising Laurence and his wife of 32 years, Jackie; their daughters Cecile, 26, and Hermione, 23; Cecile’s husband, Dan Rajan, and their son, Albion, who is nearly five; Hermione’s fiancé, Drew Marriott; three spaniels and a horde of chickens. (As doting grandparents, Laurence and Jackie are ‘Guvy’ and ‘Gags’.)
They’ve put the house on the market several times, but lockdown has convinced them to stay put. ‘I’ve now made a pact with this house: I’m not going to try and sell it.’
They love the area, and predate many other Cotswold celebrities, feeling closer to the old guard, including Jilly Cooper and the Duchess of Cornwall: ‘It always gives me a little thrill when you get Mrs Llewelyn-bowen, Jilly Cooper and Camilla in a room at the same time. The uber-blondes of Cotswold living. The power concentrated in the three of them… near mythical.’ Camilla, he recalls, slowly looked him up and down when she first met him and purred hello. ‘Like a very glamorous Terry-thomas.’
On cue, Jackie, fresh from aquafit and uber-blonde, bustles in to say hello. They adore a full house, she confirms, even if it means the dibbers go missing, and are now converting a garage into a flat for one daughter, and may build another house in the garden for the other. (Recently it was misreported in the local press that this was a conservatory LLB had been forced to paint ‘flake grey’ by the local council; in reality he was never going to do anything different – exteriors aren’t his thing.)
‘It’s a weird thing to say, coming from me, but when you get to your mid-50s you’ve got to get off the whole giddying roundabout of
‘If you leant on some of the stuff it’d fall right over. We were making it up as we went along’
trying to make things better,’ Llewelyn-bowen says. ‘Actually, just stop and enjoy what you’ve got. A general zeitgeist at the moment is people have fallen in love with where they live again… or fallen out of love, big time.’
A good save – for a moment there he was about to render the new, rebooted series of Changing Rooms entirely void. Yes, the show that made him the most famous flamboyant interior designer in the country has been brought back by Channel 4, 25 years after it launched on BBC. Again, two families will swap and renovate each other’s rooms with the help of some experts, again it’s a tight budget, and again they’re taking a punt.
Llewelyn-bowen is ‘the only cadaver they summoned back from the dead’ from the original line-up, and doesn’t keep in close touch with the old gang. ‘[“Handy”] Andy might be doing Youtube videos? Carole Smillie’s a celebrant – she marries people… Linda Barker’s still doing interiors, Anna [Ryder Richardson] runs a… zoo?’ (Not a lie; she does.)
I read an old interview in which Llewelyn-bowen claimed he’d never be involved in a revival, yet here we are.
‘Mmm, I’ve now filmed it, and I’m still saying I’ll never do it.’ His insatiable urge for doing the opposite of what seems sensible is what swung it. ‘Everything in my career leads to more grown-up stuff – international expansion, high-end makeover judging in Asia, Australia, Los Angeles… Not doing over a couple of council flats in Battersea,’ he says. ‘I was in my 30s then, now I’m in my 50s. I live in considerable comfort and marginal splendour in the Cotswolds surrounded by my adoring family and spaniels… Surely the worst thing in the world for that person is to put on a pair of leather trousers, painting people’s ceilings? The minute I put it in those terms, of course I was going to do it.’
I should have said, the leather trousers – which he insists were ‘entirely a practical solution’, given he could chip paint straight off them – are back, although it’s a new pair, tailored to his more mature measurements. ‘I’ve still got the old ones, but they’d probably fit my grandson now…’
Llewelyn-bowen was a thrusting, fine art-trained interior designer in London when Jackie, then a famous wedding planner, urged him to apply for Changing Rooms. He auditioned by ignoring a woman’s wishes for her Ikea bookshelf and turning it into Gaudí’s Sagrada Família instead. He was hired on the spot.
As he recalls it, in eight years, only three participants didn’t like what he did for them. It’s not as if he accidentally smashed a prize collection of teapots, like Linda Barker did. The clip of that incident regularly goes viral. I don’t know if Barker ever recovered.
‘I don’t think she did,’ Llewelyn-bowen agrees, solemnly. ‘I don’t think her career did, either…’ A big difference this time, he reckons, is that Channel 4 and the show’s sponsor, Dulux, ‘actually make the rooms really, really well’.
‘The design is the design is the design is the design,’ he says, wafting a hand. I have no idea what he means, but nod. ‘The thing that was always slightly… compromising about the first iteration was that if you leant on some of the stuff, it would fall straight over. We were making it up as we went along.’ He had a trick: ‘If I ever thought something wouldn’t come off, I’d fake up an 18th-century painting, throw it on the wall, then at least they had something they could get a couple of quid for on ebay.’
Occasionally he grew frustrated by television work, to the extent that he actively tried to get sacked. At his most pissed-off, he decided to do ‘absolutely nothing to the room, and instead just made a
sex boudoir. I painted MDF to look like very plumptious caryatids supporting a fourposter bed, sprinkled rose petals on the floor, scattered candles about, and had nudes painted on the walls.’ Fully prepared to be fired, he was gutted when the couple loved it.
No fake paintings or sex dens in the new series, but we’re used to Llewelynbowen by now. Changing Rooms revelled in turning him into ‘a kind of moustache-twirling rat-king figure’ – but it was fine by him. He soon became a brand.
‘Me, Clarkson, Ramsay and Cowell are the big exports. Wherever you go, you’ll find an opinionated, middle-aged, middle-class “expert” on the television,’ he says. ‘We’re painted as not quite antiheroes… more Captain Hooks. But then, who fancies Peter Pan anyway? Captain Hook had all the depth.’
Incidentally, every year his agent rings and asks him to play Captain Hook in panto, but every year he declines. He hasn’t done anything scripted since auditioning to play himself in The Devil Wears Prada (the Stanley Tucci character is based on him) and failing to win the part.
Britain needs Changing Rooms , he believes. After it finished, in 2004, there was nothing but endless property shows – Grand Designs, Location, Location, Location, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces – which aren’t interested in interiors.
‘Property shows, by their nature, tell you not to do things in an interesting way. The reveals on Grand Designs are so boring. You’ve got Kevin [Mccloud] looking down his nose and being a complete Roundhead about stuff, but Changing Rooms was Cinderella. We had reward; we reinforced personality.’
There is a shrewdness to bringing it back post-lockdown, when so many want to renovate. With all that time at home, he thinks, tastes have changed and – whisper it – the obsession with minimalism may be over.
‘We were in the teeth of the greynaissance. The British have an obsession with taste so we went for something with no taste at all. But we got bored of living in a bunker, and ordering online meant if we wanted to have a plush raspberry velvet sofa, we could,’ he says.
‘People are doing what they want, and that’s my mantra. True design democracy means you can do whatever you want. You have to be allowed to live as a fifth-century Roman or have a large mural of Aleister Crowley or have a grey wall.’
Or just have them all. Minimalism is practically a swear word in Llewelyn-bowen’s book, and he cannot abide the Marie Kondo school of throwing out everything that doesn’t ‘spark joy’. ‘I still struggle with the popularity of people like her, like Mrs Hinch, like Kelly Hoppen… People who tell you how to do something. There’s no encouragement, , no humanity. It is the old school, the crisp, headmistressy, do-it-this-way thing… No.
I would never suggest there was only one way of doing something.’
Hoppen has, Llewelyn-bowen says, ‘always found me slightly difficult and loud’. He and Jackie were once at a dinner party at her house, ‘inevitably drank too much, ’cos it was stiff ’, and when he asked to use the loo, Hoppen said he must tell her what he thinks, as she’d had it redone.
‘It was literally three lead troughs and a couple of orchids,’ he remembers. ‘As I came out I said, “Kelly, darling, I think I might have pissed in your sink. They’re all identical…” I wasn’t invited back after that.’
And with that candour, Llewelyn-bowen is here to liberate us all – from greige, from repression. A lot of things have changed in 25 years. Luckily, he isn’t one of them.
‘I feel,’ he says, looking into the distance, ‘a bit like Don Quixote, strapped to my saddle once more, and someone’s going to slap the backside of my horse and I’ll start charging at windmills again…’
The new series of Changing Rooms with Dulux begins at 8pm on Wednesday, Channel 4
The leather trousers – ‘an entirely practical solution’ – are back, tailored to fit