Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is making Britain bright again
- Credit: Steve Thorp
Changing Rooms is back! Ready to paint your elephant-breath and mouse-back walls orange, tangerine and lime green. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen dazzled white-with-a-hint-of-pink Katie Jarvis with more detail. Photography by Steve Thorp
Changing Rooms, BBC, 1996-2004: “When he painted my playroom 23 shades of brown I told him he was insane… We had to burn our piano. They painted it in orange and brown stripes and it couldn’t be saved.” Jo Thompson from Kent.
“I had to scrap my period skirting boards after they painted them in black acrylic.” Susan Dukes from Hull.
Short miscellany of reactions: “What a change. Crikey.” “It is red, isn’t it?” “Bloody hell.”
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It’s 1990s Changing Rooms. And, for the first time ever on national TV, an innocent and trustingly naïve homeowner’s jaw has dropped (slightly lower than the Mariana Trench) on seeing a loved-but-tired room transformed into something John Lennon would have struggled to turn into psychedelic lyrics.
You’d have thought Peter Bazalgette, owner of the production company, would have been hanging out the black-with-silver-tape-stuck-on flags at getting such a stunner of a reaction. In fact, as he told the Guardian earlier this year, he had felt mortified. “I thought: ‘God, I wonder if this is going to destroy the series.’”
He’d never set out to make anyone cry.
That soon shot out the window, along with MDF offcuts.
For the minute deeply stunned householders (“Call 999 and tell ambulance control you think they are in shock. If possible, explain what you think caused it.” St John Ambulance website) reacted to their new rooms:
“It’s Kylie Minogue on speed. It’s Barry Humphries’ sanatorium”;
“The same colour comes out of new-born babies’ nappies”;
“NO!” [Repeated by one person six times];
Reporters flocked to doorstep them; morning news shows clamoured to invite them. In short, everybody (bar said-homeowners, obvs) adored a Changing Rooms disaster.
Snapping at those heels were the rooms owners loved but no-one could quite figure out why. Such as the Ruffs from Northumberland, who treasured their Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen-designed ‘Mediterranean love nest’ for six years - including the MDF caryatids that lined their four-poster. Today, the faux-Greek nudes sit either side of the garden shed that houses their tortoise sanctuary.
So catapulted into the halls of fame were the Changing Room stars – the show attracted audiences of 14 million – they’d be mobbed by people who hadn’t even had their rooms designed by them. Once, in a nightclub in Aberdeen, police had to rescue Laurence and Handy Andy from undue attention.
Success aside. It’s hard to imagine even Peter Bazalgette looking back on the infamous Teapot-gate episode with anything but a shudder. You know – that moment in 2000 when Linda Barker was asked to redesign a room for Clodagh, whose antique teapot collection was her pride and joy.
Surely only Ray Mears – and he strictly for training purposes - continued to watch after Linda’s suspended shelves crashed to the floor, smashing more than £6,000-worth of teapots.
There are plump hens scratching round outside Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s 16th-century Cotswold farmhouse in Siddington, just outside Cirencester.
“They’re desperate to come inside,” Laurence says, as he opens the door. “Jackie [his wife] insists that, when it’s colder, they’ll have to.” [and, with the latest rulings surrounding domestic birds and avian flu, it looks like they’re in for a cosy winter indoors].
Clearly not a pecking order he relishes.
“I’m going to move into the hen-house.”
He’s looking debonair – oh my gosh; when does he not – but not in the elaborate William-Morris-suited way I recently saw on one of his YouTube videos. He’s clad in a dark suit (I’m the wrong person if you want detail; but I’m assuming it’s his beloved Barrington Ayre), hair lifted from Charles I (but nicer).
If you think it’s merely in the arena of domestic fowl that Laurence’s emphatic ‘No!’s cut no ice, think again.
He’s been saying No! “probably for 10 years” to a Changing Rooms revival. His ‘No!’s got louder when the world was clamouring for his services (which it still is; bad luck, world). He was contracted in America, Australia, China.
“There was no time. Also I was thinking: Surely it shouldn’t be about me. Surely it should be about bringing in new people.”
Then Covid happened. And instead of being away filming for six months of the year, Laurence found himself back home competing with the hens.
“I started trying to convince myself that a 56-year-old grandfather who lives in the Cotswolds should not be wearing leather trousers and pirouetting around screens, painting people’s lives orange. And the minute you say it like that, you go: Of course I will!”
Can you get leather trousers in Cirencester?
“I do. Sheep&Chic have made my entire leather wardrobe. Barrington Ayre, the tailor, did all the patterns. Mario [S&C owner, along with brother Michael] took them by hand on a plane to Poland where they have their factory; and then came back with the entire leather wardrobe handcuffed to his wrist. Like it was some sort of secret formula.”
“Exactly. A leather vaccine.”
Truth be told, he’s delighted – with an air of modest-ish surprise – at the Baroque-like enthusiasm (ornate, extravagant, flamboyant) accompanying Channel 4’s reboot of Changing Rooms for viewing this spring.
Reality TV inamorata Davina McCall is to present. Laurence has been brought back as a designer: “one of the original cadavers from beyond the grave”.
He’s thrilled people are thrilled; but feeling a bit told-you-so.
“A lot of people underestimated the fact that it kind of is a bit of a British institution in its own strange, weirdy way…”
As is Laurence…
“As am I – strange and weirdy; I agree.”
It certainly hit the nation – which, up to then, had enjoyed serenely formal television – with a Handy Andy hammer-blow.
“It was one of the first things ever on television to give you a sense as a viewer that you were actually watching what was going on; that it wasn’t contrived. When those teapots fell to the ground [prise your hands from your eyes; we won’t talk of this again], you knew you were in there amongst the experience. It opened the door for a lot of things like reality television.”
Strangely – and I hadn’t realised/remembered until Laurence told me – it was the only ‘real’ programme the BBC aired on the evening of 9/11.
“The standard line was: they were so frightened of people having such an extraordinary news – and tragedy - overload that they left Changing Rooms in there. So you got doom and gloom, Changing Rooms, and then back in.”
* * * * *
Yes, he camped it up, with his Charlie’s Angels hair and grandmother-settee-print suits. But Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is a clever man. Clever, artistic and learned.
Indeed, he grew up in a clever household: his dad, who tragically died of leukaemia aged 42, was a Harley Street surgeon; but – crucially – it was a household of white walls, moss-green carpets, brown furniture and John Lewis style. Laurence’s one oasis in this “arid” designscape was the William Morris chrysanthemum-print his mum – a teacher – had chosen for the sofa and occasional chairs. (More on Bill shortly.)
Examine the art that Laurence created for Changing Rooms (such as the portraits of Susan and Russell, done up to look like Nell Gwynn and Samuel Pepys) (retro-spoiler: they hated them) and you can see why he’d have taken a degree in fine art from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts.
Alongside the reality TV, he’s knowledgeable on classical music, and is a former Classic FM presenter. His current YouTube video series, A School of Flock, on the ‘history, culture and alchemy of interior design’ is rich, entertaining and elucidating.
Such as the episode on William Morris – still one of his heroes.
In fact, as we speak, I’m sitting on a sofa covered in one of Laurence’s own William Morris-inspired prints: his ‘I [heart] the Cotswolds’ pattern. Elsewhere in the house are chairs in a May Morris pattern, William Morris’s daughter.
The two of them – Laurence and Bill – share not only some of the same aesthetics, but values, too. While Laurence flies the flag emphatically for the Cotswolds, William was also a home-loving chap.
“He changed the world. We always have this vision, somehow, that Britain is a Georgian nation. We’re not at all. We’re entirely Arts & Crafts. Most of what we live in was built between 1880 and 1930. Strawberry Thief [Morris’s print inspired by thrushes stealing from his garden at Kelmscott] is our Union Jack. And it still makes us proud. It’s a celebration of nature, of hedgerow, of history. It’s a celebration of soft socialism.”
What would Laurence say, were he to meet his sometime muse?
“On one level, I’d probably want to give him a bit of a hug because I think he had a really shit marriage. Janey [wife Jane Burden, who had an adulterous affair with their friend Rossetti] was a cow. She wasn’t nice to him – and she was publically not nice to him.”
So would Laurence hug William and whisper, “Leave her”?
“I wouldn’t at all. Because he was so gentlemanly. He stuck it out. I did feel [in the School of Flock video] so emotional, talking about how bitter she was when he died. What she said about him. [She announced she’d never loved Morris.]
“I’ve got a really cool marriage. I’d like to say to him: You don’t need to do it at the expense of your family. But I loved the way his girls carried it all on. It went onto another generation.”
That’s also a synergy.
“Yes – in a way, that’s what Dan [Laurence’s son-in-law] is now trying to do with the brand – carry it on into the next generation.”
Indeed. In spring, they’ll open an LLB showroom in – yes; wait for it – Cirencester, taking on the lease of the old police station.
“We’re creating a pattern showroom. Dan has worked out that, after 25/30 years, we’ve got 2,000, maybe 3,000 patterns I’ve created over that time. All of which, now, through the Qof digital printing, could be made available for very short runs. So, for instance, this sofa, which is ‘I [heart] the Cotswolds’, you could theoretically come to our showroom and talk to us about getting five metres for curtains or cushions.”
A home-furnishing service (alongside the big bespoke clients, who’ll still be on the books) for carpets, curtains and lampshades.
“It’s a big step for us; it’s a massive investment. But it is a lot to do with flying the Cirencester flag. A huge amount to do with that.
“That’s of benefit to me; I’m not going to lie. As far as all my international retail is concerned [his brand sells on websites and in shops the world over], to have a Cotswold flagship makes all the difference; they think that’s just brilliant. For them, it’s either Mayfair or the Cotswolds. Choose.”
* * * * *
Let’s put Laurence’s Changing Rooms (the old one) in context. There were only ever three real disasters.
“For me, it was only three times. Exactly.”
But we all remember at least one of those.
“They were spectacular.”
People didn’t just mildly dislike their new rooms?
“No, no. It wasn’t: We don’t like it. It was: You’ve ruined my life.
“It was something that really only happened in the first two or three series. After that, the whole country just got used to me.”
Hasn’t he created his own Frankenstein, though? I mean, having helped transmogrify a nation, how does he – in 2021 – recreate that same shock and awe?
“I’m going to be setting the bar so high.”
“I mean, so, so, so, so high. So high. So high. But it is about challenging people’s taste. I’m unapologetic about that. If people say to me they don’t like something, I’m going to want to know why. I do it with myself. The minute I say, ‘I hate yellow’, I start going, ‘Umm; I actually quite like yellow’.”
What he genuinely can’t stand are snobbery and class attached to interior decoration. “And in Britain, that’s something that does rather come with the territory.”
May I have a clue – a tiny, teensy-weensy clue – as to what we might expect?
(Listen, peeps. The shows have been filmed cyber-securely. This stuff is more secret than the data on which lockdown is based. We’re probably bugged by GCHQ as we speak.)
But what we do know is this. It won’t be boring.
“During lockdown, people have looked at dull walls and thought: This isn’t me; I am not this person. I am eccentric, eclectic, sexy! I drink too much gin; I have too much fun; I travel; I see friends. All of the things that were denied are cast in extreme relief by an empty room.
“My mission for Changing Rooms is to make Britain bright again.”
(Good luck, world.)
For Laurence’s latest news, visit llb.co.uk