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Laurence of Suburbia

He may be known as the 'Mr Nasty' of the interiors world, but Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is a doting granddad who believes the value of a home can't be measured in money. In fact, the only thing he has a bad word to say about is hygge, as our reporter discovers


Laurence Llewelyn Bowen. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Laurence Llewelyn Bowen. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Laurence Llewelyn Bowen. Photo: Caroline Quinn

He's known as the 'Mr Nasty' of interior design, but Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has promised not to make anyone cry on his new Irish TV show - or, at the very least, to offer them his perfectly pressed pocket square if he does.

As the face of the BBC's Changing Rooms in the 1990s, the "scary prince of purple" infamously reduced a number of homeowners to tears after transforming their boring living spaces into Transylvanian lairs. Laurence says it's an image he's happy to embrace as he makes his television debut here alongside Roscommon interiors expert Neville Knot on a new series of Showhouse Showdown - even if it's not quite true.

Folding his six-foot frame into a clamshell chair in one of the Co Meath showhomes set to feature on the TV3 programme, he says, "I always feel slightly guilty because people love the idea that I just do kind of Byronic, rather creepy, gothicky things, and when they actually look back through my back catalogue, they're kind of, 'Hang on, where is all the stuff that we associate with you?'

"With Changing Rooms, I did the original pilot, ended up presenting it, went to America with it - but, actually, I only ever got three that they didn't like. And that's just weird, when you think about it, because Linda Barker, who was always considered to be quite safe, got loads and loads that people didn't like. With me, there were three times they didn't like it, but, inevitably with me, it was just enormous. It was an opera - it was like La Traviata.

"I think I have a very Celtic attitude to the way I'm perceived," he adds. "I've never really cared. I don't feel I've got to be someone's best friend. I'm just going to be me, and if we get on, then that's great. If we don't get on, then that's fine. Life's too short - just be who you are."

Unless you're a fan of hygge, he jokes - then be someone else. Earlier this year, the 52-year-old Welshman ruffled duvet feathers when he went off on one about the Scandi-chic trend on BBC Radio 4. Asked how he feels about lagom, the latest incarnation of the 'less is more' phenomenon, Laurence looks as though he may need to dash to the freshly tiled showhouse loo. "Queasy," he responds in a word. "I really do feel that it always was the blond leading the bland. It was something that appealed to people that were deeply insecure about their own taste; that they could just buy it and feel that they were part of the taste brigade.

"There are beige people out there, I do fully accept that - they're not on my Christmas card list - but what I hate is people who obviously aren't that feel they've got to be. We're now in the 21st century: we should be allowed to be whoever we want to be, for goodness' sake.

"My big sort of evangelical mission is to get people to understand that the world is a really scary place, particularly at the moment. You do worry when you step outside your front door on a Monday morning will you ever go back - so, when you get home that sense of relief, and that sense of being in a protected place that is entirely yours, that you are totally in charge of, is really, really important.

"I think that what you do with your home always has to be an expression of your personality. The clothes you wear will be judged by people. The car you drive, where you go on holiday, what's in your supermarket trolley… All of these things are in the public domain, but your home isn't - your home is private. With your home, you can literally do whatever you want."

Having previoulsy run for five seasons in the UK, Showhouse Showdown - which sees two professional interior designers make over two identical showhomes before a winner is chosen by the public - was a victim of the property crash and disappeared from small screens in 2009. Now, eight years on, Laurence believes audiences are ready for more "interiors porn".

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"I've always been fascinated by showhomes," says the presenter, who has also just been snapped up as a judge on Australian reality renovation series House Rules. "It's a very, very tough brief for a designer because you've got to keep the developer happy, you've got to keep the builder happy, you've got to appeal to the public; you can't be too quiet, though, because it's a very kind of aspirational thing. It's kind of soft porn. It's sort of like top shelf, and so you've got to be just teasy, flirty, intriguing enough - but then not to be so outlandish that it turns people off actually buying them.

"I love the really, really straight- forward attitude that you get in Ireland about the fact that everyone visits the showhome," he continues. "Viewing showhomes is almost like a leisure activity, which is great - why the hell shouldn't it be? The Brits are far too snobbish. They love it, but actually they'd never admit to it. In Ireland, everyone is so much more secure about who they are and what they are."

Now the purveyor of everything from wallpaper to women's underwear, father-of-two Laurence reveals how he's long since grown used to his celebrity, even if one suspects he'd much rather be signing autographs with a quill pen than posing for selfies. Wife of 29 years Jackie, on the other hand, is less of a fan.

"When you become a celebrity, you have to understand what that entails," Laurence says. "That means that you're going to be recognised whether you want to or not. It's up to you how you deal with that.

"If someone comes up to me and wants a selfie, there's a basic decision there: do you say 'no', in which case it will probably take twice as long and you'll have an argument, or do you say 'yes', it'll be over in 15 seconds and then they'll remember that when they're next in Harvey Norman and they see one of my products? It's stupid not to. Why not be nice? I always like the fact that Jackie's walking along behind me going 'f*** off' - she's less impressed by it.

"When they come up to me, they want to talk about interiors, they want to talk about stuff that they've done, they want to tell me how they don't like my stuff… It's a relationship that I take enormous pride in having with the people who watch my programmes.

"I've always liked being famous in Ireland because it's a very easy-going relationship. It's sort of like 'Hi, Laurence' - it's less sort of freaky. China's weird because they really they go quite jittery, but they won't come within five or six metres."

Being at close quarters is something that Laurence is comfortable with - especially when it comes to family. With the birth of the first child of his film-maker daughter, Cecile, and future son-in-law, Dan, he is relishing being a granddad - or "guv'nor", to give him his preferred title.

"I've got a half-Irish grandson called Albion," he says. "His father's half-Indian. Isn't your Taoiseach half-Indian, half-Irish? There we go - the next Taoiseach!

"Albion and I have got a really, really good relationship. He is such a poppet. His name is old Greek for 'Britain'. I keep teasing them; I say, 'It's a bit post-Brexit!'

"They now live on the other side of the courtyard, and it's just such a wonderful thing to have. We're now looking to build a couple of houses on the land, one of which they'll have, but then we'll have it when we get a bit older and doddery, and they can have the big house.

"I love the fact that it's almost like we've put the clock back 100 years to the point where families stayed together. You live above the shop - and that's exactly what we do."

Despite being in demand, Laurence insists that he'll never sign up to a project that puts finance before family. "I absolutely refused to do any shows that are about property value, right from the outset. Changing Rooms finished, all the home shows finished, and everyone wanted me to do shows about 'come and improve the value of the house', and I just said, 'No, no, no,' all the way through because that instantly robs your home of its true value.

"Its true value is entirely emotional. It is the background to everything that you and your family experience. It is where you become who you truly are. It is so unbelievably spiritually important, you should not be constantly obsessed by its worth."

However, the original TV dandy reveals he hasn't ruled out launching his own fashion collection. "I've been offered loads of fashion licences and stuff like that - the moment will come when the moment comes.

"Twenty years ago when I started on television, everyone thought I was gay because I wore clothes," he laughs, recoiling at the suggestion that he secretly wears a tracksuit at home. "Now it's like a whole new generation have come up that have understood: why not make a fuss of yourself? It's a lot to do with men feeling a lot more confident to be different. They're much less herdy; they're much more relaxed about sexuality.

"But right at the very top of it is women, who have now become so much more powerful that they do not want scruffy men. They want a confident, polished, sharp-looking consort, and I think men are living up to it."

'Showhouse Showdown' begins on TV3 on Tuesday, October 3, at 9pm

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