Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: The people's toffs

He trashed the nation's magnolia sitting rooms and replaced them with style extravaganzas. Now the design guru and his wife are turning on chav culture, with a new book on how to be posh. Danuta Kean reports
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The Independent Online

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and his wife, Jackie, have come over all Janet and Ray, the Disgusted of Middle England couple on The Catherine Tate Show. "Top of the stairs she was, wearing trainers - and she had her tummy hanging out! With the prime ministers of history looking down on her!" says Laurence.

He is recounting the time Cherie Blair received them at 10 Downing Street. "I wouldn't turn up in trainers with my tummy hanging out," fumes Jackie. Laurence's indignation subsides into a snigger. "It was beyond muffin top. It was more like a Yorkshire pudding."

Cherie's sartorial faux pas turned out to be the final straw in Llewelyn-Bowen's exasperation at the influence of chav culture. It was a call to arms that has resulted in him and Jackie spending the past year writing A Pinch of Posh, published by HarperCollins tomorrow, their manifesto for Middle England.

"The elevation of the chav is a really bad thing," explains Laurence, 41. This is an understatement. The two have a hit list of hate, from Cherie's trainers and zedlebrities ("Most are self-harmers," says Jackie) to the blame culture ("You have to just get on and be happy," says Laurence) and badly dressed Brits ("It really is true that if we are in a beautiful country and well dressed, we never have a problem getting a table" - Jackie). Eating and smoking in the street are particular bêtes noires, signs the offender has suffered an irredeemable loss of both pride and conscience. "Breathing in someone's smoke is like treading on someone's used needle," sniffs Laurence.

Any sense of irony that Llewelyn-Bowen is attacking the very people who raised him from humble designer to national institution appears to be lost on the couple. Can this be the man who made his name on the chavtastic makeover show Changing Rooms and who is famous for dress sense that resembles a Thatcherite makeover of Adam Ant? We are in the sitting room of their glorious Greenwich home, and even the wellington boots have rococo designs on them. Laurence and Jackie are dressed to the nines: he in top-to-toe Savile Row; she vibrant in purple and black, perfectly complementing the rich burgundy wallpaper. They look, and sound, like Richard and Judy on acid.

The book is an oddity among celebrity titles. Written, they say, under the influence of "a lot of gin", it's partly a self-help book, aimed as much at raising self-esteem among the lower orders as correcting their ways. "It is about dragging the proletariat up to a decent level of loveliness, not dragging us down to a proletariat level," says Laurence, a former public schoolboy.

The spirit of Nancy Mitford hovers over the book, which has left the marketing and PR team worried about its impact on the LLB brand. As well as Laurence's career as a presenter, the couple have an interior design business, Llewelyn-Bowen & Associates. Their over-the-top design for the Inc Bar in Greenwich, including erotic wallpaper, won accolades.

Jackie, a wedding organiser before she married Laurence in 1989, has written books of her own - notably a Debrett guide to wedding etiquette - but it is the first time the two have worked together outside design. It is also the first time Jackie has come out from behind Laurence's skirts and raised her voice about the things that bother her. She has been raising their two young children, Cecile, 11, and Hermione, eight, and running LB&A.

Their book incldues tips on how to deal with a paedophile children's entertainer, camp up your deathbed, prepare for a visit to the clap clinic and look sober when sozzled. But Laurence isn't worried. "It is about being a cavalier, grown up and amused by things that shouldn't do us damage," he insists.

It is not the first time Llewelyn-Bowen has dispensed advice to the masses. As first a designer, then presenter on Changing Rooms, he became synonymous with the television makeover movement. Each week for eight years until it was cancelled as part of the BBC reality TV putsch in 2003, 10 million viewers watched to see the faces of hapless contestants as they realised he had transformed their magnolia lounge into a rococo knocking shop. You couldn't look away.

Llewelyn-Bowen alone emerged from the show with a credible television career. He fronts the long-running Holiday, and ahead lie a second series on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and a genealogy series for the BBC. He has also had cameos in Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen - proof, he hopes, that his appeal stretches beyond Middle England. Llewelyn-Bowen understands branding - before TV, he was a marketing director. His former colleagues have not fared so well, relegated to satellite TV and sofa ads. "I am Robbie Williams, they are Gary Barlow," he observes gleefully.

He is less gleeful about shouldering the blame for the blight of stencilling and misguided makeovers that swept the country in the late Nineties. "I am invoked by too many people and made responsible for their taste," he moans. This hit home on a visit to 11 Downing Street, when Sarah Brown showed him her "improvements". "She said, 'I've got rid of all those horrible old Gainsboroughs and replaced them with'" - his hand sweeps the air - "'This!' It was like the absolute dregs of the Saatchi collection. The awful thing was the imputation that I had inspired her. Then she said, 'We thought we'd have a bit of history, so we've got some trade union leaders.' And there were these paintings of dignitaries with large gold things on their stomachs." Jackie guffaws.

Gordon Brown ("looks like he'd steal your pies") and Tony Blair ("too shifty and sweaty") are not on the couple's list of Posh Icons, which is an odd mix of the beautiful and the damnable. Though Jackie insists that the couple are "non-political", her allegiance is clearly with Mrs T, who is on the list, along with obvious apostles such as Joanna Lumley, Nicole Kidman, Dolly Parton, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. "He has the cleanest teeth I've ever seen," says Laurence.

He also identifies with Brand's blend of sexual ambivalence, proof that what he sees as the macho 1990s are long gone. "I feel as if I am the grande dame of metrosexuals," he declares archly. The Nineties were "a tough time to be a flamboyant heterosexual. We were very misunderstood," he adds.

Being the only straight boy in flounces may have made him a national institution, but it has left its mark in other ways. Despite claims not to care about questions about his sexuality - it has become a cliché for journalists to write how masculine and handsome he is in the flesh - his constant harping on the subject sounds defensive.

"For an enormous proportion of the female population of this country, floppy boys are actually quite dashing. The night we met, she was convinced I was gay," he says, indicating Jackie. "She thought I was Rupert Everett. It was marvellous."

"And he scored!" declares Jackie, looking as pleased as a Cheshire cat.

Developing A Pinch of Posh for TV is a distinct possibility. If so, they will not follow the example of the strict madams currently seen dispensing advice on our screens. "We are beset by these nannies, these misshapen crook-back nasty..." Laurence seethes, hunching up like a pantomime witch. He refuses to name names but we know who he means. "There is no humour, no joy. Why bother putting your life together if all you have is a chilly moral high ground? We'd much rather occupy the very moral low ground with a ha-ha and drive of orange trees."

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