'He was throwing some serious shade at me!' - Diarmuid Gavin and Dermot Bannon talk teaming up for Room to Improve
Is there room to improve on Dermot Bannon's stellar home improvement show? Only the addition of gardener Diarmuid Gavin. John Meagher meets the two men as they buddy up to give Ireland's homes a makeover
It is one of those schizophrenic late summer days. One moment, the sun is beating down on Diarmuid Gavin's gloriously verdant garden at the foothills of Wicklow's Sugarloaf mountain, the next the rain is so incessant it drives the country's most celebrated gardener indoors.
Gavin is not doing any gardening today, though. There's a production crew and TV cameras at the beautiful home he shares with horticulturalist wife Justine Keane and their 14-year-old daughter Eppie, and he's filming a two-part special with Dermot Bannon - Ireland's household name architect. The pair are getting on famously.
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They have got to know each other very well this year thanks to their work on one of RTÉ's best-loved shows, Room to Improve, which returns for a new season tomorrow.
Bannon has been a hardy perennial on the show - which routinely pulls in an eye-catching 40pc of the available TV viewing audience - and the new season will feature Gavin for the first time. It will be appointment television for those who like property porn. And now, as Bannon puts it, there's a generous helping of gardening porn too.
If both cut genial figures on the small screen, they are no different off it. They seem to have a fully-fledged bromance going on and while it's clear they have huge respect for each other, they're very happy to take the mick, too. There is a genuine connection.
"I was p**sed off initially that there was a Dermot doing a design programme which was very similar to what I was doing with I Want A Garden," Gavin says of his work on an old RTÉ series. "Then Dermot became this massive, massive thing…"
Bannon interjects: "'In Ireland,' as he told me yesterday! Because of course, he's massive in the UK. He was throwing some serious shade at me."
Gavin - who is known as Diarmuid to some, Dermot to others - is quick to retort. "Nobody under the age of 30 knows who the f*** I am. When I'm out with this guy" - he nods at Bannon - "it's all about him. Women, men, everyone.
"In Irish terms," he adds, addressing Bannon directly, "something massive happened to you. You see it if you're out with you. It's very obvious. You've a completely different sort of relationship with that sort of fame thing than I do. I think I would like it but I don't want to be anywhere near it. You thrive on it! You love it and you handle it extremely well."
Bannon accepts the compliment. "I see it as a bit of fun," he says, "I'd a taxi driver who roared across the road at me 'You need a new bloody calculator Bannon!' And when I buy a cup of tea in a garage in Longford, say, they'll hand me back the change and say 'There you go, Dermot'. I've only had good experiences with it."
Room to Improve was first screened on RTÉ in 2007 and quickly became a big hit. It's old by the standards of ever-changing TV, but, if anything, its popularity has only grown. Diarmuid Gavin believes he knows the reason why. "It's all down about Dermot," he says. Bannon protests that there's much more to it than that, but Gavin is adamant. "No, I really do believe that. I don't watch television but I read reviews and it's all about you and when you're hurt - it's all Dermot felt this or Dermot did that.
"I worked on Grand Designs. I started working with Kevin [McCloud] donkey's years ago but he's always smug or always a bit more knowing than everyone else. But Dermot has a different effect. I mean nobody says, 'I love Kevin McCloud' or 'I love George Clarke.'"
"I think the producers pick good characters to go on the journey," Bannon reasons. "They always pick people who tell the story and are engaging. Room to Improve is an insight into Irish life. We take a year to make an episode so it's not quick. With a lot of reality TV shows they're [contestants] all followed in a week, and that's it.
"With this, on day two, they stop thinking about the cameras. They stop filtering themselves. A lot of reality shows are a bit like Facebook - people are presenting the best of themselves, getting their hair done and so on. And there are days when I think, 'Jesus, you could have run a brush through your hair!' - but that's what lovely about it. They're just themselves.
"Even with Daniel and Majella [O'Donnell, whose Donegal home was made-over in last season's hugely popular opening episode], who are in the industry, the filters went after a while and you start to see the real them."
Bannon says he was nervous about meeting Gavin for the first time "because you've been doing TV a lot longer than me. But I think we complement each other well."
Gavin's green-fingered expertise is put to good effect in the first show of the new season and the featured property in the Curragh, Co Kildare, is as much about the garden as it is about the house. Spoiler alert: the pair take an ordinary suburban home and hilly garden and transform both into something to make even the most magnanimous of people sick with envy.
"I didn't think of him [Gavin] as something to give Room to Improve a celebrity addition - although, of course, he does. I thought about him as a great landscape designer. And he brings an incredible passion to it."
Both say their work on television has helped their normal, day-to-day work but Bannon says being well known does not buy him an easy ride - a sentiment echoed by Gavin. "When new clients come into my office for the first time they might be happy to be there," Bannon says, "but once they're spending money and you're talking bills, they want a professional."
Bannon jokes that the collective noun for his profession is a "jealousy" of architects. "I think people in my trade were a bit nervous about putting the wares on display but I've felt nothing but support," he says.
"What Room to Improve has done is raise awareness of architects among audiences in Ireland. Now, people come up to me and say things like 'I'd love more light and to let my space flow.' Twenty years ago when I said I was an architect it was, 'I'd love a walk-in wardrobe, I'd love a conservatory'.
"People are now starting to think about how a house feels and how a house functions, rather than just numbers of rooms. Years ago, people would boast about having a five-bedroom house, but that's changed. Younger generations have a sensibility about them - they're throwing away the rule books. They're really environmentally conscious."
He can see it in his own household. "Jesus, you can't bring a [plastic] straw into the house," he says. "It's like you're bringing in heroin. But that's great. I'm learning far more from my kids because they're looking at me and it's 'Dad, what are you doing?' If I buy a bottle of water. They'll say, 'You know we've got bottles at home'."
"It's a change that's really great to see," Gavin says. "And there's incredible creativity in this country," Gavin says. "There's a market for that now. Everybody because of the internet and television is educated. When I started off, when you'd think of creative people in Ireland, you'd think about songwriters and poets. Now, that creativity encompasses so much more."
He is seeing a major shift in how people view gardens and the green spaces of their cities and towns. "In the past, if you were lucky enough to have a garden you were judged... by your relatives and neighbours. You had to keep it manicured, the lawns done, hanging-baskets, that sort of thing.
"We didn't understand the importance of those spaces within our overall environments and how important they can be for our biodiversity. Now we do. With intensive farming it's now sometimes the case that the very last refuge for insects and birds is our domestic plots. And we're learning that gardening isn't housekeeping - it can be messy, you can have nettles, plants don't have to be planted in a very rigid way."
Both are aware of the irony of a hugely popular programme being watched by swathes of the population with little to no hope of buying their own homes. They say they are fortunate to be of the generation where buying a house felt like a simple rite of passage.
Bannon believes there needs to be a sea-change in Government thinking. "We need to make better rental environments and that's were really well-designed civic spaces are important. And we've got to stop the urban sprawl. We need to live more effectively in our cities. I know with my kids, the back garden is grand, but they prefer to be playing in parks surrounded by other kids." Bannon and his wife Louise have three children, Sarah, James and Tom.
"Dublin," he says, "needs to have a 'shoulder-line' of six storeys - we don't need to go higher than that. Look at Barcelona. If we went with the same density as there, everyone who needs to live in Dublin could be contained within the M50."
He is insistent that high-rise is not the solution. "They're fine if they are landmark buildings at gateways to the city, like at the 3Arena or Heuston Station, but there are parts of London where [skyscrapers] are competing with each of other and where there's a lot of vanity at play."
Gavin says there has been a dearth of quality urban planning, although both suggest that Westport, Co Mayo, is a rare example of somewhere that got it right. "The problem for planners," Bannon says, "is that they are given a certain area, or pocket, of the urban environment to work with and it may not be harmonious with the neighbouring area. We need much more joined up thinking."
While there has been much talk in recent years about the need to build much more housing, Gavin says the conversation should not neglect the importance of parks and civic spaces to compliment new development."
"Greenery is so important for our mental state," Gavin says, gesturing out to his leafy garden, and a rolling field with hay bales beyond, as another heavy rain shower falls. "It's calming. It helps us relax after go, go go.
"Look at how house plants have become a thing. It's because people want living things, something to focus on that's real, something to care for - not an app on their telephone."
Bannon, meanwhile, believes in the principle of co-living - a contentious subject in the Ireland of 2019 - if done correctly. "The problem with co-living here is that they're charging full whack for it. If they were charging €400 or €500 a month, it would be a very different story because co-living is supposed to be affordable living. Nobody wants small living spaces and high prices."
Both men work in industries that took a battering during the recession. "I think we learnt a lot from the last crash," Gavin says. "People are much more resilient and they haven't forgotten what happened. People say we're back to the days of the Celtic Tiger but I don't think we are."
Both Bannon and Gavin realised early on what paths they wanted to take in their careers, and both say they are content with the way their professions have gone. But it hasn't all been plane-sailing. "There's a lot of hard work involved," Bannon says, "and there are times when family life suffers a bit. You want to spend more of it with your kids, but projects you're working on can get in the way. There's always a balancing act between work and family life and sometimes you wonder if you're getting the balance right." For Gavin, that balancing act can be trickier as he still tends to work on a lot of overseas projects. "My wife is very supportive," he says of Justine, daughter of the former Chief Justice Ronan Keane and the Sunday Independent columnist Terry Keane. "And I'm really grateful for that."
He says a big challenge is to keep the inspiration flowing. "You can't get complacent. That's how laziness sets in. You have to challenge yourself, to step outside your comfort zone a little bit."
And both are taking several steps outside their respective comfort zones right now as they work on the transformation of Bannon's new home and garden in Drumcondra, Dublin. "The location is the worst kept secret," Bannon jokes, "we moved a street away from where we had been.
"It's been a challenge for me because I'm getting to put myself in the shoes of the people who go on Room to Improve. I'm now learning what it feels like when there are delays or when there are unexpected hidden costs. And it's scary!"
This separate two-parter, which will air in the New Year, will not come under the Room to Improve banner although it is being made by the same production company, Coco Television. "It will have a different structure," Bannon says, "and I suppose is a very personal thing, too."
And, while the two creatives seem happy to shoot the breeze with Weekend for the rest of the evening, they are summoned to do some more filming. The rain has stopped, the sun is out and the cameras are set to roll once more.
"This," Gavin says, of his life in the Garden County, "could hardly be more different to the sort of life we had before. We were in the centre of London, in 'murder capital'. I used to spend my days in coffee shops." Bannon snorts with laughter. "You still spend your days in coffee shops! This guy" - he looks at Gavin - "goes to Avoca [Kilmacanogue] every morning and blends in with all those yummy mummies. And that's your market!"
"It's your's too!" Gavin returns with a shot. The pair dissolve into laughter.
The 12th season of 'Room to Improve' begins tomorrow at 9.30pm on RTÉ1.