Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was bare-chested and trying to zip up his famous leather trousers when his five-year-old grandson walked into his bedroom. ‘Guv’nor,’ said the boy, because of course Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s grandson would call him something like Guv’nor, ‘you look like a pop star. A very old pop star.’
Laurence chuckles at the memory, because while he’s well aware of what people think about his semi-ridiculous leather look, he doesn’t care. In fact, he’s never cared about what people think.
In the 26 years since he first appeared on our screens on Changing Rooms, flouncing about with his luxuriant hair, a ready smattering of ‘darlings’ and a taste for all things OTT when it comes to furnishings, he’s gone from a slightly naff figure of fun to something of a cult hero – a gilt-edged, multi-coloured behemoth in a drab landscape of vanilla TV wannabes.
Part of his secret is that he has never cared about being on television; he’s only ever seen his job as being an interior designer. He’s also never really cared about what the people he’s meant to be designing for on Changing Rooms say they want – instead he gives them what he thinks they want.
The Llewelyn-Bowen clan: (back row) Dan and Cecile with their son Albion, and Jackie and Laurence, (front row) Drew and Hermione
In the first episode of the new series, which starts next week, the people whose lounge he’s redecorating request only one thing: no orange. So, of course, they get orange.
Still, he is rather enjoying his ‘Bowen-naissance’, as he calls it. ‘I don’t have a different personality on television to what I’m like in life and I think that’s quite rare, certainly since Keith Floyd died,’ he says.
‘I’ve never seen myself as a performer or a TV presenter per se, I just sometimes do interior design on television, so you aren’t going to get the smarm or the over-the-top broad smile from me. ‘It’s terrible when you can see that voracious hunger to be on television in people’s eyes.
‘I just like to be a maverick. I don’t think there are many like me on television so it’s nice to see how excited people are to have me back.’
Changing Rooms returned last year after a 17-year break, moving from the BBC to Channel 4, and brought in a host of new fans as well as old. And viewers made it clear what they wanted to see more of (along with brightly coloured walls and flamingo-themed bedrooms, of course): LLB.
So in this series there’s a luxuriance of Laurence as each week he competes against one of three interior designers. Jordan Cluroe and Russell Whitehead of 2LG Studio return, and they alternate with new interiors experts Micaela Sharp and Whinnie Williams, who both work alone.
Even last year’s presenter Anna Richardson has been dispensed with in favour of more Laurence. When we catch up, he’s working on a new show for Channel 4 called Outrageous Homes With Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, in which he meets people with even more outlandish tastes than him, and later this year he’ll return for snowman-making competition The Greatest Snowman.
We have an old-fashioned gong because I can’t bear the idea of texting people to tell them to come to dinner
The Bowen-naissance is well and truly on a roll, but first he’s on a one-man mission to banish Britain’s grey walls. ‘Almost every house we go into for Changing Rooms they apologise for the grey walls,’ he sighs.
‘We’ve also had to confront this weird obsession with things called Scandi-Chic and Mid-Century Modern. I think when people buy into these things they think they’re buying good taste which is not true. Scandi-Chic is just an excuse for flat pack, and Mid-Century is a clunky title which doesn’t mean much at all. There’s a chunk of low self-esteem attached to it. People feel they’re not allowed to have big, sexy and interesting. They feel all they deserve are these quiet, mass-produced utilitarian design styles.
Changing Rooms, pictured, returned last year after a 17-year break, moving from the BBC to Channel 4, and brought in a host of new fans as well as old
‘There’s a glut of shows on television now, all inspired by Changing Rooms, in which interior design has become the fifth emergency service. I don’t believe design should be about creating comfort zones.
‘Entertainment needs to have jeopardy – you never know how it’s going to turn out. I’ve never wanted to make a safe interior in my life.’ Unsurprisingly then, there were lots of tears while filming this series, in which the new working from home culture features heavily, with bedrooms and garages being converted into offices.
But Laurence insists it was all for the good. ‘There seemed to be constant tears, from the making of the room to the big reveal.
‘The audience will have to decide what those tears denoted. Crying is the new black.’ Laurence, 57, has always been unafraid to do things his own way, and he puts it down to his difficult childhood.
He was just nine when his adored surgeon father Trefor died of leukaemia. His mother Patricia, who had multiple sclerosis, had to fight to keep her family (Laurence has a brother and a sister, both younger than him) together because social services thought she’d be unable to cope.
‘I try not to look back, and I’m sure plenty of people have a very similar story to mine, but I think you often find children who’ve faced something big in their childhood can be empowered and energised by it,’ he says.
‘I’ve never been compelled to do what everyone else is doing. I’ve let things run and ignored people who say, ‘You can’t do that, that’s not how you should live.’
The idea of living life exactly how you want to permeates his unusual but idyllic-sounding home life. Along with Jackie, his wife of 33 years, he shares his Cotswolds home with his daughters Cecile and Hermione, and their husbands Dan and Drew, and their children.
Apart from Cecile, who’s a novelist, they all work in the family interiors business under the LLB brand name. ‘Lockdown really proved to us how much we wanted to be together,’ says Laurence.
‘It’s the best way of doing things. This is what used to happen.
Along with Jackie, his wife of 33 years, Laurence, pictured, shares his Cotswolds home with his daughters Cecile and Hermione, and their husbands Dan and Drew, and their children
‘In the modern age people decided that children have to leave and move as far away as possible and create a new life. But before that you stayed together and got involved in the family business – you’d work together on the farm or in the shop – and that’s what we do.
‘We’re very lucky we’ve got space to make it work, and it does work extremely well. Jackie and I see our grandchildren every day and we adore that. There are thousands of grandparents out there who are bitterly upset and lonely because they never get to see their grandchildren.
‘Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of parents who feel they simply can’t cope with their lives and jobs because they have no childcare or support. But if more people did what we’re doing, both of those issues would be completely sorted.
‘If people got on with their lives rather than always trying to move up the property ladder, they might be happier. Lockdown showed that people can work from home and I think more people should use that as an opportunity to make their lives better.
‘For us, lockdown showed us what we were already doing was working. The most important thing is to be happy. It’s much more important than moving up the property ladder.’
Jackie, pictured with Laurence, is chairwoman of the LLB company, and the boss at home, he says
Jackie’s chairwoman of the LLB company, and the boss at home, says Laurence. She does the bulk of the cooking, and they try to all have dinner together as often as they can.
‘There’s enough space, so we aren’t living on top of each other. Often we’ll have a drink in the evenings and we try to have reasonably formal occasions.
‘We have a good old-fashioned gong because I can’t bear the idea of texting people to tell them to come to dinner. We take eating together very seriously – it’s an important part of living together.’
Often they will travel to work – the LLB offices are in nearby Cirencester – together. ‘We live above the shop and work in the shop.
People say, ‘I couldn’t work with my mum, we’d be arguing,’ but I think that’s what happens if you only see each other three times a year. When you see someone every day you resolve friction as you go along.
‘It isn’t allowed to build up. Working with family means I can trust them. They aren’t afraid to say no to me. I want their honesty.’
He jokes that he’s the ‘constitutional monarch’, the face of the family and the brand. ‘I’m the one that cuts the ribbons.
‘Everything is pretty much handed over to the rest of the family to make a business out of it because if it was left to me, it would be an absolute disaster.’ It’s apt then that the grandchildren call him ‘Guv’nor’, after one of them struggled to say ‘grandfather’ and it stuck.
‘It feels more us. Well, more me,’ he laughs. ‘I’m happy about it – I sound like an East End gangster.’
Changing Rooms returns in August on Channel 4 and All4.