Kevin McCloud: Interview with a space man

Kevin McCloud is passionate about architecture's power to change the world, his TV show 'Grand Designs' is the most compelling thing on the box and he's quite dishy as well. It's all just too much to bear

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I'm a huge fan of Channel 4's Grand Designs which is weird, really, because I'm as likely to build myself a cedar-clad, glass-roofed eco-house in the forest as I am to ever tidy up the rubbishy house I already have and don't give a stuff about (ask anyone). And yet, and yet ... I cannot resist it. Maybe it is simply the show's format - ah, the indomitability of the human spirit over seemingly impossible obstacles and that bastard of a steel girder which is a millimetre out - or maybe it's just Kevin McCloud.

I have a bit of a pash on Mr McCloud, which isn't that weird, as he's quite dishy in his lanky way, but I think I love him most for being the terrific presenter he is: passionate; knowledgeable; eloquent and basically everything that most TV presenters are not, so long as, of course, you discount that Cat Thingy and the Tess woman (Deeley? Daley? Who can tell?). I love Kevin when he bubbles with excitement - "wow, what a space; this is a triumph, isn't it?" - but mostly I love him when he does those wonderfully agonised pieces to camera. It's: "I just wonder if Jane and Trevor have over-reached themselves with that sliding roof." Or it's: "Dovetailing the old and new needs such a careful touch, and I'm just not sure if they can carry it off." Naturally, it is never "well, it's on time and under budget, so I'm off, toodle-oo" but that, of course, is part of the very, very great joy.

We meet at a private members' club in London. He is lankily dishy although doesn't have a lot of hair, but that's OK. After all, he always looks just so cute in the little beanie (navy) he wears when he's on a build and it's February and the weather is miserable and the site has turned to mud (and you can guarantee, whatever the project, there will always be a February when the weather is miserable and the site has turned to mud). Whatever, he has just finished lunch with some business pals and is wondering if a second bottle of wine might be in order. Kevin, I say, watch it. Kevin, I add, "I wonder if you are over-reaching yourself. It's one hell of a risk, pouring all your money into that second bottle of wine. I'm not sure you have the vision or the courage to ..."

"Come on," he cries, "that's a caricature!" "Kev?" I say. "That is so you. Get real!" A second bottle is ordered. It's red and I have a glass or four. It's delicious. "Wow," I say, "it's fantastic, isn't it? It's like a beautiful dream." He says: "Oh, stop it!"

I ask why he thinks the show is as furiously compelling as it is. He says: "It's the storytelling, isn't it? Every programme tells a story that would even fit into the classical model. It is exposition, development, conclusion. And the lovely thing is every story is different. That's why the programme is successful. Otherwise, we'd be preaching to a tiny audience of self-builders on a satellite channel at three in the morning." Are the conclusions always happy? Absolutely not, he says. "Some are complete disasters but they're the ones we never show because they are never finished. There's nothing to go back to visit. One guy had to sell his plot with only his basement in it and nothing else. That was a disaster for him because it wasn't worth more than the basic land. Hard, that."

The new series kicks off with Karen and Francis Shaw who are determined to save a crumbling 15th-century Yorkshire castle, the loons. The building needs ancient monument consent - "which can take months, maybe even years; they're taking one hell of a risk here..." - before they can do anything but what I don't get is this: they end up £200,000 over budget and well broke but when you return, Kevin, to see it finished - "gosh, astonishing, isn't it?" - they've put in a great big, hand-carved slate bath that must have cost thousands. How does that work?

"Look," he says, "when you do a project like this on such a grand scale you just can't, in the end, put some shit in. You've put in all this time and you have to honour that as well as the building." Can I assume, Kev, you are not an Ikea fan? "Nope. Generally speaking, the idea that you can create a quick fix that is also of real quality and lasting value and highly sustainable just doesn't hold. And what interests me most is quality. Some of the Ikea stuff is great. And I think the way they have transformed the market is terrific. But they're not doing anything that Terence Conran didn't do with Habitat in the Sixties." But people who don't have much money have to get their sofas somewhere, surely? "I know, I know. Sorry, but I can't pretend I'm all things to all men and women."

McCloud lives in Somerset with his wife and his four children and while I don't know what his own house is like I do try to get a measure of it. What's your favourite object? "Not interested." Beg pardon? "Not interested." Oh. OK, then, what object do you most covet? "Not interested. Well, maybe an Aston Martin DB9 but that's it. It's funny, I'm just not very materialistic. I'm much more interested in exploring the relationship I have with the things I already own. Does that sound poncy?" Well ... "Yeah, it does, doesn't it? But we've got this good second-hand wood burner we bought which I love. I love that object. Some things I really connect to but I'm not interested in accruing more." I'm only guessing here, but I'm pretty confident his bathroom isn't from Dolphin.

He was born and brought up in Boddington, Bedfordshire, and is now 48, not far off me, although I look a lot better because my hair has remained thick and gorgeous and lustrous (ask anyone). We talk the first records we ever bought. His was "Slade Alive! or - it wasn't Tubular Bells, was it? That would be really sad. It might have been Tommy by the Who." He can be wonderfully poncy every now and then. When we talk our top five films I am chastised for my list because "there is no Buñuel in there! Or Bergman! Or Tchaikovsky's Nostalgia!" I say I didn't know that Tchaikovsky made films. He says: "Tarkovsky, Tarkovsky! And you have to have Nostalgia because it is so ravishingly beautiful." My counter argument - "I don't want to lose Life of Brian!" - doesn't seem to impress him overly.

His father, Donald, was an engineer. "He used to do electronics for rockets and test systems for guided weapons and missiles. Lots of Official Secrets Act stuff. In 1969, I remember he turfed us all out of bed at 3am and turned the TV on so we could watch the first lunar landing live. He was fanatical about the truth of science and its power to change the world."

Kevin is fanatical about good design and its power to change the world. He is not a lightweight, pebbles-in-the-fireplace, Changing Rooms kind of chap. Changing Rooms? Pah! "I always felt that people generally want to spend more than 500 quid on a weekend doing up their kitchen. People on the whole take more pride and interest than that, don't they?" "Oh, for sure," I lie. Anyway, he is currently working on a TV project which plans to build a whole new community of well-designed yet affordable houses. Good design, he says, "can change the way people think, the way people feel. Wake up in a cold, poorly insulated damp house with water running down the windows and it's a really, really miserable existence." Well spotted, Kev. "I've been to places like that where you walk out and crunch needles under foot, and they're really, really grim. But give people a good place to live with nice architecture and facilities like transport and good shops and an opportunity to grow their own veg and socialise with neighbours and it can both stimulate and excite you." This is hardly rocket science, as his father might never have said, but Kevin is deeply, deeply passionate about all this. He's no Cat or Tess, as I mentioned.

After grammar school, it was Cambridge (history of art and architecture) although he could, actually, have gone to Italy to train as an operatic baritone. He has a lovely voice, by all accounts, but his family and his teachers here counselled him out of it. Get an academic degree first, they said. You can always go back to the singing. But he never did. "It just sort of petered out." He says he has no regrets. "I don't think I'd have got hugely far as a singer and I would have found it hard. I've got lots of friends who are musicians and there is a fair proportion of broken marriages and relationships as a result. You are on the move all the time. It's difficult if you have kids and it's hard to make money unless you are in the premier league."

After Cambridge there was a spell in theatre design before setting up his own lighting company and gradually getting a look in on programmes such as the BBC's Home Front. He devised Grand Designs along with the television producer Daisy Goodwin and, yes, felt at home on telly from the word go. "It's actually the last refuge of the shy because you don't have to make eye to eye contact with anyone, only the camera."

Alas, our time is now up. He has to shoot to the V&A, he says. Why? I ask. "To give a talk about the series, although not a very coherent talk at this rate." I did warn you, Kev, about overreaching yourself with that second bottle. "OK, OK!" He lopes off in his lankily dishy way. I bet he socks it to them, although, of course, what I'd really like to say is: "I wonder, will he be able to pull it off?"

The new series of 'Grand Designs' begins on Channel 4, 28 February, at 9pm

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