Phil Spencer: 'I'm being myself on TV. No hamming'

Gerard Gilbert@GerardVGilbert
Saturday 19 March 2011 01:00

Kirstie and Phil. No need for formal introductions surely. It's like Ant and Dec, Jamie and Nigella – first-name terms will suffice. The Honourable Kirstie Allsopp and Mr Philip Spencer have been property TV's dream double-act, with Channel 4's Location, Location, Location and Relocation, Relocation, since 2001. But while Kirstie has given a whole succession of fearless interviews over the years, on everything from breastfeeding in front of the telly and her mild dyslexia to advising the Conservative Party on housing issues, Phil has kept a discreet veil drawn over his private life.

Spencer might wax lyrical on the state of the property market or the one-sidedness of the British estate-agency system, but he doesn't do the big personal-profile thing. Ha-ha, I think, as he lets me into his enormous red-brick villa on the edge of Wandsworth Common in south-west London – not until now.

"Kirstie is a journalist's dream – you just wind her up and she'll start talking," he says, leading me through to his enormous modernist designer kitchen-diner-lounge. But he can surely see why people might feel that they know Phil Spencer, and maybe want to get to know him a bit more? "Relocation, Relocation's not a scripted show", he says, "so arguably people do know us because we are being ourselves."

But aren't he and Kirstie hamming it up something terrible – giving us viewers a TV version of themselves? "It's not hammed up at all. If we hammed it up you'd notice, and to be honest we film so much that you couldn't keep it up, you just couldn't."

But what about the money shot in each episode, where Kirstie or Phil haggles with the estate agents? Surely these are staged? "So many people ask that question – even people involved in television. In fact three weeks ago there I was about to make the call, and the buyer said 'You're not actually going to do it? Right here and now?'.

"It's a wonderful bit of the whole filming process because it's very, very real. Kirstie and I, right from day one, have been very clear with the production company – this is people's money, it's not a DIY show, it's not makeover, they can't undo this, if we can save them five grand or 25 grand, that's serious stuff."

OK – hang on with the serious stuff, Phil. Let's talk shirts. While Kirstie appears in a succession of maternity dresses (when pregnant, of course, which she isn't as often as Sarah Beeny), cardigans and, most famously, berets, Phil is always immaculately turned out – like a demobbed former military man now working as a land agent, which, as we shall see, isn't too far from the truth. For this interview I rejected my usual frayed Gap shirt for my prized Thomas Pink shirt, complete with big Phil-Spencer-style collar, and I was duly gratified when Spencer opened the door wearing a fine example of his own. "Richard James," he says. "Don't worry, half an hour ago you would have found me wearing a frayed Gap shirt." I look doubtful. Was he always a bit of a dandy? "My sister once said of my wardrobe, 'this isn't a wardrobe, it's a shop'."

Actually the whole building (ex-GMTV presenter Fiona Phillips's house backs on to his garden, while Jack Dee and "one of Take That" are also neighbours) is generously outsized. Phil and his wife Fiona bought it five years ago, after Phil had conducted the same sort of precision house-hunting he advises in his TV show. "I had my eye on this street. I wanted to be this side of the street, with the sun in the garden."

The basement conversion has the highest ceilings I have ever seen in a basement conversion ("we had the digger down here and we just kept digging"), and stretches back underneath the garden. "We can't decide whether to make this a gym or just storage", he says showing me into this sub-garden space, which is the size of my living room.

"My boys [Jake and Ben] are five and seven, and the whole idea was to find a house we could live in forever," he says. He's been married to Fiona, who's Australian and who used to be in marketing, for 10 years. "We've been together, crikey, 15, 16 years... we met in the Ministry of Sound, which is not the place where you usually meet your one true love." Was he a raver, I ask, trying to visualise Phil getting down to the Happy Mondays or Fatboy Slim? "I wouldn't say I was a raver – it was a drunken student night out."

This was back in the mid-Nineties, when Phil was studying to be a surveyor at South Bank University, but the Spencer story begins on a farm just outside Canterbury in Kent, where Spencer was born in 1969, the second-oldest child of four – with an older brother, who now runs the farm, and two younger sisters. "We had hops, potatoes, watercress, fruit, barley, a bit of pick your own. As a boy it was a wonderful environment to grow up in."

Phil and Fiona now own a holiday cottage on the farm, which they visit every three weeks, Phil also getting to indulge his passion for shooting – one that has led him to lend his support to the Countryside Alliance. "Urban politicians feel they have to say what does and what doesn't go in the countryside, which is a bitter pill to swallow," he says. "I've never ridden a horse fox-hunting but I've been brought up around fox-hunts all my life, it's always been something I've been comfortable with... never questioned. The fox is a predator – the fox doesn't have any predators apart from man."

Right on cue, Phil's newly acquired gun dog, a chocolate springer spaniel called Jessie, bounds into the room and puts her head on her master's lap. "We always thought we'd have dogs before sprogs, but it turned out the other way round," he says, as I try to redirect the conversation back to his boyhood.

Like his father and older brother, Phil was sent to Uppingham, the public school in Rutland whose illustrious old-boy list includes actor John Suchet, chef Rick Stein and Stephen Fry, who was famously expelled. Spencer was there with DJ Johnny Vaughan. Australian movie-star Hugh Jackman also taught at the school for a year, although it wasn't until last month that Phil realised it was the Hugh Jackman. "I was talking to a mate who lives up the road, who was also at Uppingham, and he told me. I had never made the connection."

Spencer was made head of his house, despite one or two disciplinary blips concerning alcohol. "I had a great, great time there. Didn't do any work, but I played a lot of cricket" – something he continued to do after a gap year in Australia, playing for the Kent under-21s, before ending up in the offices of a Canterbury estate agency.

"My original plan was to either join the Army or play professional cricket. I actually did a three-month [Army] course up in Catterick, which I absolutely loved, but when it came to the commissioning board to go to Sandhurst they'd just had the Options for Change Programme [post-Cold War troop cuts], and they took three people out of 40."

But why the Army? "I still believe that the greatest challenge for a man is to lead people into battle, into a life-threatening situation, to be able to earn the respect of those people who would follow you. Also, 20 years ago the Army was quite a fun place to be – there was a lot of travel, a lot of sport, there wasn't too much war..."

The military's loss was property's gain, although Spencer soon became disillusioned by estate agency. "It was the depths of the early Nineties recession and in six months I never sold a house, and I didn't like a lot of what I was being asked to do... the sharp practices."

He decided to sit out the recession by getting properly qualified as a surveyor – the South Bank years during which he met Fiona and went clubbing – before eventually setting up his own home-finding business, Garrington (named after the farm in Kent). "I had £1,000. Fiona and I were living together at the time... she had a decent job, and she could pay the rent, so we said 'I've got £1,000, I'm going to see how long I can make it last. The £1,000 doesn't exist any more as of three years ago, but it lasted for a while... Yeah."

What happened three years ago was that Garrington went bust. "The music stopped when Lehman Brothers went down in September 2008. We did one or two deals in six months. We had some amazing clients, turned over a lot of money , but we got too big too quickly, had too many people, too many offices..."

Phil has never disclosed the identity of his clients before, except mentioning once that he failed to find anything suitable for Claudia Schiffer and her husband Matthew Vaughn. "I can probably talk about it now, can't I? Well, there was Kylie, Ricky Gervais, various musicians, Keira Knightley..."

With what I'm realising is an impressive all-round scrupulousness (no wonder he could hack it as an estate agent), Phil sealed Garrington's fate by advising clients that they could not invest in property for the time being, while he also honourably took on the company's debts. Would he set up another home-finding business? "No, I would not; it was very expensive and very scary, although I still do a bit of private property work."

In place of Garrington, last year Phil and Kirstie formed their own TV production company, Raise the Roof, to make programmes apart from their Channel 4 shows. The first fruits will be seen at the end of this month, with a new travel show cunningly titled Vacation, Vacation, Vacation.

"There used to be a lot of travel shows on television and there aren't anymore," he says. "Kirsty and I have spent so much of the past 10 years travelling together and we thought people are used to seeing us travelling around trying to do deals, maybe there's room to do this on a bigger scale.

"We've done high end and low end – four different destinations and four different types of holiday. Marrakech, mainland Spain, Ibiza, Croatia, city breaks in Dubrovnik and Barcelona, and we did adventure which was the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and Iceland, we did boating, which was the Maldives and Croatia, we did romantic, which was Maldives, and we did Tuscany..."

Bloody hell, Phil, you're living the dream aren't you, I find myself thinking aloud. "I wouldn't argue with that," he says, giving that twinkly smile so beloved of his female viewers ("women love Phil", my wife is fond of saying). "Funnily enough I went round to Kirstie's for lunch on Monday, and we were remembering about when the idea [for Vacation, Vacation, Vacation] was first discussed and she said she looked at me and the picture on my face meant that there was no way she could not do it."

Lunch with Kirstie? I thought I had read Kirstie saying that, after seeing each other three days a week, they never socialised. "I think Kirstie said 'Ben [Kirstie's husband Ben Anderson] and Fiona probably wouldn't have it if either of us came back from work and said, oh shall we go out for dinner with Kirstie or Phil.' We used to socialise before families came along – we probably still do three or four times a year – but the reality is that we see each other enough."

Phil believes their chemistry is helped by the fact that they both fell into television by accident (originally Phil was hired as a consultant), and neither takes the medium too seriously. "Television is a very flippant business. People come and people go, so I don't think I can take it too seriously. Fortunately I've had a lot of success in it, largely due to the fantastic format.

"As to what Kirstie's like as a person, I don't think my attitude's changed to this day – she's as mad as a bucketful of snails. But great fun, very entertaining and great company – says it the way it is.

"We bring very different things to the programmes and that's the strength. Generally, I like to be prepared. I like to have a talk with the producer and the director about what we're looking for, and all that. Kirstie doesn't like, or won't have, any of those conversations. It can make it quite tough for the director and cameraman. But it usually works quite well because I know where we're supposed to be going and she doesn't. Anything could happen, and that actually makes it very good fun."

Kirstie has described Phil "as the perfect gent", and as he holds my coat out like a waiter in a restaurant, there is no denying that. Manners maketh the man and all. Walking back to my car I realised that I hadn't asked him, or had been afraid to ask, how much his house is worth, so I indulge in a bit of Phil-like behaviour. Noticing that a similar house two doors away is for sale, I ring the estate agent and ask how much it's going for. "Two point six million", she says. "The one next door went last July for two point seven." And I bet it hasn't got as big a basement as Phil's.

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