Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: I Remember

Nicola Venning 13 July 2021

Flamboyant British TV star Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is best known for the home improvement hit, Changing Rooms. Here, he looks back on his childhood and career 

When I was about eight, I was desperate to have a purple ceiling in my bedroom. I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies and the homes of my parents’ friends were very colourful: purple on purple; lilac on lilac; felt walls on suede, shag pile carpets, that kind of thing. 

Going back to our home and thinking it was very quiet by comparison, with lots of antiques and a 1950s vibe. The only moments of exuberance were judicious bits of moss green William Morris on the sofa or the curtains. I remember feeling the design in the space I inhabited was extremely underpowered. However, as far as my mother was concerned there was something very, very wrong with purple and she refused point blank to let me have a purple ceiling. So eventually, we settled on a compromise and I was allowed a very pale blue one. I wonder whether I would have been a very different person if I had been allowed that purple ceiling.

Laurence

My father’s mother was a very talented seamstress and she used to make these incredible uniforms for me which I absolutely adored. There was something of the Prince Regent about me as a child and I definitely loved uniforms. I had a series of them which were all perfect. She did a complete Beau Brummell outfit for me as well which I absolutely loved, but I would take it a bit further and used to make my own combinations: so, I could wear the trousers of one uniform, the bearskin of another and then a little bit of "Indian Brave" in between. Any sartorial interest in the dressing up box started more or less from the year dot with me.

We didn’t go on foreign holidays; it was difficult when my mother was diagnosed with MS and then my father died. But when they were both still around, we would go on extended road trips around Wales looking at Edward I castles and churches. My father was incredibly interested in heraldry. I rather loved the whole chivalry thing but for my poor brother and sister, who were very different to me and very into sport, it was the seventh circle of hell. So we would be bumping around in the back seat of my father’s rather strange fawn-coloured Jaguar with no seatbelts, when the door would open and my brother and sister would be kicked out to play in a local park with some sweets—1960s Spangles probably. And then I would go on with my father and mother to find the local church or immerse myself in Beaumaris or Caernarfon.

"We didn’t go on foreign holidays; it was difficult when my mother was diagnosed with MS and then my father died"

I was at Camberwell (College of Arts) in the 1980s and it was full of very serious people, which surprised me. The first day an old friend of my wife, called Fenella, was having a tricky time and I remember very naughtily telling her before the life drawing class, that she better hope the model turned up because if she didn’t, all our names would be put into a hat and the one chosen had to take their clothes off and we would draw them. And I would do all I possibly could to ensure that her name came to the top. She then became really concerned, and went rushing around—"Has the model turned up? Has the model turned up?!"

Sitting in a still life class when one of the tutors came up, looked at my drawing and said, “Yes, OK, that’s coming on but you haven’t got the honesty.” I thought, Oh my God, he’s right. I’m not being honest about this. So tried to be very, very honest with my charcoal. And the whole thing was getting smudgier and smudgier. After about three or four attempts the tutor was still not happy. I was getting very frustrated and said I didn’t understand what he meant. And he said, "Oh, you haven’t got the honesty­—the flower in the corner!" I had this assumption that life at art school was going to be more artistic and deeper. That went out the window.

Laurence and his wife Jackie

Laurence and his wife Jackie

Jackie, my wife, and I were the world’s longest blind date. A good friend of mine was going out with a good friend of 
hers and I remember them saying: “Laurence should meet Jackie. They would be amazing.” I can remember this conversation going on in the background for about 18 months, but the meeting never actually happened. Then there was a dinnerparty to which Jackie had not actually been invited, but she lived round the corner and she rang and asked, “Do you mind if I pop over? I’m bored.” And she did, and that was it. That was the coupe de foudre in January 1984. I was 19.

Jackie and I were in a long- distance relationship for the first couple of years. She was at the Sorbonne in Paris: her father was a diplomat and posted there and she and I used to go backwards and forwards; it was quite intense. Both of us had been very much involved in the 1980s party, clubby scene that was going on and both of us very much needed to knuckle down and do some work. So it worked very well to have a much more tender, much slower long-distance relationship. There were no mobiles and the nearest telephone was in the metro station and very rough, so we used to write long letters to one another which always shocks the children! I think Jackie still has the letters.

The Criterion Theatre was the first big interior design project I did on my own in the early 1990s. It was very high profile. People were surprised that I did the whole theatre in pink and lilac rather than traditional reds and gold. It got a lot of attention and launched me as a “young designer to watch”. I mean, I said silly things like, “I want to turn this into a Victorian spaceship”, which everyone lapped up. But  my design is still there and no one has changed it.

"Both of us had been very much involved in the 1980s party, clubby scene that was going on and both of us very much needed to knuckle down and do some work"

Laurence's daughter Cecile

Laurence's daughter Cecile

Our first daughter Cecile was incredibly tactful as a child. She was very polite and slotted into our lives very elegantly. Hermione, our second daughter, was very different. Life was much more complicated at the time, though: the paparazzi were always around; we had issues with a stalker and there were even (untrue) stories of me being gay… and Hermione was unbelievably naughty; I mean weapons-grade naughty—but in a really charming way. She once went on a play-date to a tall Georgian house in Greenwich and turned on all the bathroom taps on the top floor. The entire house became a bowl of water! That was the kind of stuff we were dealing with at the time. I keep warning the man she is going to marry next year, but he says he can cope.

"She once went on a play-date to a tall Georgian house in Greenwich and turned on all the bathroom taps on the top floor. The entire house became a bowl of water!"

Changing Rooms (the hugely successful BBC interior design series) was a disaster for my career. It meant that my traditional portfolio of clients did not want to work with me anymore. They didn’t like the idea that the paparazzi might be following me and going through their bins, and some felt I had become a bit popularist. When the show aired, it was an immense hit. I remember the next day being in Peter Jones (department store) and this woman thrust a piece of carpet at me and a bit of fabric and asked: “What do you think? Do you think they go together?” I said, "I am very sorry, I don’t work here," to which she replied, "I know you don’t work here but I saw you television last night.” I thought, Right, OK; that’s what it’s going to be like…


Changing Rooms will air on Channel 4 at the end of summer 

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