By Jo Berry
For over two decades and for more than 200 episodes, designer and presenter Kevin McCloud has guided adventurous home builders through their ambitious projects on Channel Four’s Grand Designs, offering advice, pointing out pitfalls (to the participants, as well as us armchair experts at home) and acting as kindly counsel as marriages are tested, plans go awry and budgets are exceeded in the pursuit of a dream home.
“It’s my job to be a therapist,” laughs McCloud, when asked about his role as a calming influence to frazzled grand designers in the series. “You know that when you go to a therapist they never give you any advice, all they do is ask you questions so you come to the conclusions yourself? Well, it’s the same with me. I try and say, ‘You should do this, you should ring up that person, why don’t you do this as it would be so much easier,’ and for nearly 25 years now, no one has ever taken my advice. They completely ignore it.
“They say, ‘We know you have seen hundreds of projects, and we have heard you say things again and again but we are going to ignore all that because we think this is going to be perfect.’ And what I love about that response is that it embodies hope, it embodies optimism, that zealous position of ,‘We are right, we are doing the right thing.’ And of course, then it goes wrong. That’s human nature. Because hope is this terrible emotion which takes you to the brink of a cliff and then it pushes you off. It can be very destructive and we have seen some really powerful projects where those drives have led to chaos in the end.”
One of the trademarks of Grand Designs is McCloud’s ability to quietly understate the looming catastrophes he sees (when one man told him he hoped to complete a massive build in just eight months, McCloud told him he was “very brave” rather than utterly mad), a very British talent he is well aware of.
“I’m so pleased we make the series here and not in America,” he says. “It is now on Netflix in the US and The New Yorker magazine ran the most beautiful review of it as though it was some kind of exotic species of television. I talked to my producer and we realised I am quite keen on using language that is understated, which isn’t used on American TV. You could keep piling on the superlatives [describing a build] until they don’t mean anything anymore, but all you need to say is ‘I think he’s in a spot of bother’ and, in that very British way, it undermines the need for superlatives and the viewer’s heart misses a beat.
“In America, they’d [the presenter] overturn a barrow and walk off swearing just as the advert break is about to start, and they would do so in a way that was pre-scripted,” he continues. “Can you imagine pitching the idea of Grand Designs to an American executive? They would say, ‘Show me where the jeopardy is. Show me the scripts because I want to know how it ends,’ but the answer is that the house isn’t built yet so we don’t know!”
Finding British architectural projects to feature on Grand Designs that will hopefully end up as finished homes (there are a few that are still not completed) is as much of a challenge as the builds themselves, and the Grand Designs team spends many hours and days choosing and researching potential projects before the camera ever starts rolling.
“We’re not inundated with projects, which is why we have the show’s contact details at the end of each episode – we’re desperate,” McCloud reveals. “Often, we get architects writing in saying they have this amazing project, and then they write back two weeks later and say, ‘Sorry, my clients aren’t interested, they refuse to go on television.’
“It’s tough finding good projects – as the years have passed we have covered a fair few water towers, and conversions of old houses and quite a few glass boxes. But then along comes a project where you think, ‘We have got to do this’ because it is such an interesting story, and it’s the stories of the people, building for three generations, or one site for two families sharing one house, or people who have upped sticks from South Africa back to the UK to forge a new life – the human stories that drive the building. At the beginning of each film there is no building – there is just a site, and so you’ve got to somehow convey the energy and the passion of these people and their truth.”
McCloud and his Grand Designs team also have to watch out for people who have ulterior motives in agreeing to appear on the series, such as wanting to sell the house as soon as it is completed (“I loathe being used as a television estate agent”), or hoping to use their episode to promote their own interior design business or estate agency, for example. “My nose is five times bigger than it was 20 years ago because it has now become the most sensitive instrument I have to detect bulls**t and that kind of blagging. I can tell when people aren’t quite telling the truth.”
Of course, 2020 brought its own set of challenges for the team as they went about filming updates for the new series during the pandemic. “We started filming some of the projects for this series three years ago, so plenty of the filming was done pre-COVID,” McCloud explains. “Filming the final scenes has been trickier, as we were having to film in houses with all the windows and doors open all the time to get the rooms ventilated. On the coldest day I think I was wearing three pairs of long johns under my jeans, because you are just standing around and you get so cold.”
There was one unexpected upside to filming in 2020, however. “I have always travelled by train or taxi or whatever for the series and stayed in hotels and B&Bs when we are filming, but that all stopped because I am asthmatic, so because of COVID I can’t do that,” he says. “Now I have a camper van which I have been driving since June, so I spend my weekdays in that, driving, sleeping, cooking, eating, washing up and then filming, and it has been great – it’s not so beautiful this time of year as it gets pretty cold, but I’m warm and snug.
“I joke with my colleagues that I have been making television for 30 years and this is the first time I’ve had my own trailer!”
The new series of Grand Designs starts on 6th January on Channel 4 at 9pm. In the meantime, check out our TV Guide for more to watch.