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Kevin McCloud on 20 years of Grand Designs and his favourite Surrey builds

PUBLISHED: 14:19 24 May 2019

Kevin McCloud (Photo by Glen Dearing)

Kevin McCloud (Photo by Glen Dearing)

Glen Dearing

Kevin McCloud MBE chats with Angela Sara West about celebrating a milestone 20 years of Grand Designs, what he loves about presenting the hugely-popular series, plus a few of his favourite Surrey builds

An authority on architecture, design and archaeology, Kevin McCloud is a man on a mission to dig down to the bare bones of a place and its people. Whether its unearthing medieval mysteries or inspiring millions to build brand-new outstanding homes, the philosophical presenter's prolific travels, words of wisdom and engaging signature style have been captured on camera at ancient sites and modern self-builds both in Britain and far-flung corners of the globe.

Best known for fronting Channel 4's BAFTA award-winning series, Grand Designs, McCloud also presents the prestigious RIBA House of the Year Awards, the 'Oscars' of the industry. The popular TV frontman is also an author, penning books and articles on construction, architecture, design, decoration, lighting and colour, alongside his role as editor-at-large of Grand Designs Magazine.

Grand Designs sees him criss-crossing the country and popping up in his hard hat at building sites countrywide, following the journeys of ambitious families as they attempt to create their dream homes. "We travel all over. I spend a lot of time flinging around the country like a lunatic," McCloud tells me. "It's memorable people, for me, that make places stand out, and I love that the programme gives me the opportunity to go to amazing places and the privilege of spending the day looking at a fantastic view, and meeting people on interesting journeys, all with something to say and share."

Placing people at the centre of the stories, viewers vicariously live through the tribulations'n'triumphs of Grand Designs' self-builders. McCloud's passion for architecture, history and culture shines through, as does his great sense of humour. Wooing audiences with his engaging presenting style, his asides to the camera and pearls of wisdom are legendary. What does he love most about making the programme? "The people. The people I work with, my colleagues, who are all friends and I have worked with for 20 to 25 years, whom I miss when I don't see them… the contributors and the architecture get involved as a part of that."

So, where did his amazing career begin? McCloud tells me his experience of living on an organic farm in Tuscany as an 18-year old was pivotal, opening his eyes to the world. "For me, that time was seminal… I had a place to study, worked on a farm, fell in love… everything happened in one year, it was great! I came from a small Bedfordshire village, with a very limited view of the world, and Italy showed me a world which was bigger and more beautiful, and that, personally, I might be capable of a bit more."

He went on to study opera at Florence's Conservatory of Music in his 20s, before going down the design and architecture route, rather than pursue a singing career. Studying the history of art and architecture at Cambridge Univeristy, McCloud joined the famous Footlights Revue with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, where he "tinkered" with lighting backstage. After graduating, he worked in theatre before setting up a successful lighting design practice.

Before finding small-screen fame, McCloud's own design studio saw him work on some very 'grand' designs himself, including the ceiling of the food halls in Harrods and lighting in the Savoy and Dorchester hotels, Ely Cathedral and even Edinburgh Castle. Having carved out a career as a product and lighting designer, he has produced ranges of furniture, lighting and tableware for high street retailers and manufacturers, along with designing for a number of high-profile building and architectural firms. "I've done different things and, I think, the mixture, being a jack of all trades, has made me an ideal candidate for television," he explains.

Clearly cut out for the role, in 1999, he fronted the very first Grand Designs. Two decades on, the factual series is still going strong, having grown into a global phenomenon. So how does it feel to have clocked up 20 years fronting the successful series, and to still be on our screens today? "Scary! I'm celebrating a big birthday this year (my 60th) and Grand Designs is, too, and who'd have thought? I thought I'd be doing something else with my life and I'm very blessed that it's worked out for me."


A Surrey fan

Along with numerous visits to Surrey for the show, McCloud has been a frequent visitor to the county for personal reasons in the past. "I had two girlfriends who lived in Surrey… one at university, who lived in Guildford." He says areas such as the Surrey Hills are simply stunning. "It's a glorious county; the fact that you can be in suburbia and yet you can step out of suburbia and be in this glorious wilderness in a minute… I think that's rather wonderful." Will he be visiting more self-builds in Surrey soon? "Of course! We have two projects in Woking coming up."

Is his own home a grand design? "No, it's small, simple and modest. I don't talk about it because, if there's a myth, it would destroy the myth… and my credibility," says McCloud. "Like all of us, I have a piece of furniture which I've inherited and don't particularly like, and something I bought from Habitat 20 to 30 years ago… All of our lives are full of objects which make up our autobiographies, reflecting who we are, where we've been, what we love and the people around us, and my home's exactly like that. Your home is a very private place. I am really admiring of those people who put their homes on television and allow us into their lives to film their projects, because I would never do it!"


Surrey's grand builds

From the 'Huf Haus' designed and made in Germany, but assembled in Esher, to the glamour of Art Deco in a 21st-century home in Guildford, Grand Designs has followed a fair few fantastic builds in Surrey.

The third series of Grand Designs featured former Surrey Life photographer, Philip Traill and his wife, Angela, documenting the bold build of their multi-award-winning listed barn-turned-futuristic home in Thursley - one of McCloud's top 20 Grand Designs! "Philip and Angela's project was really something else… It really stood out," he says.

Another Surrey project which particularly stood out for McCloud was a first for the programme and also for Britain. Last year, McCloud followed Elinor and Born Barikor on their self-build journey to create a low-toxin, healthy home in Richmond to alleviate their young sons' serious, life-threatening allergies and asthma. 


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