Kevin McCloud: What matters is living life, not just planning it

Kevin McCloud has – by his own admission – got quite good at being rude during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bedfordshire-born presenter and designer, 61, says he is in a vulnerable group and so is “very, very wary about spending time with other people”. In fact, if somebody gets too near him in public, he will happily say to them: “Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?! Be COVID compliant!

“I’m quite bad walking down the street now; I tell people off,” he says. “I can be completely anonymous in a hat and a mask …”

Mr McCloud began filming the latest series of BAFTA-winning Grand Designs – which he has presented since it first aired in 1999 – back in June. They’ve got “massive COVID compliance on set and that’s partly driven by me”, he says. “We’ve developed a protocol for all the various places, whether we’re filming in a building or outside, quite diligently,” says the inimitable TV personality and writer. “We have COVID compliance officers with us at all times, making sure we are all being good.”

Grand Designs follows ambitious people across the UK who have set out to pursue their vision of a dream house by building it themselves. The projects are usually incredibly impressive feats of architecture, focusing on modern design, energy efficiency, maximising space, and views. The challenge with filming the show in COVID times is that everything they do for the show “involves human beings”, Mr McCloud reflects.

Interviews with contributors that he normally conducts at a 3ft distance are now being done 3m apart, every move in front of the camera is thought about, and “within all that, you’ve still got to find the spontaneity of the conversation and the fun”, he notes.

Asked about the highlights of the new episodes, the father-of-four teases that there is a clash of opinions – “not exactly fisticuff moments” – with a couple who are converting an ancient biscuit mill into a house. “They kind of go to it with a bit too much brio. My view is, a historic building’s character is basically made up of thousands and thousands of details of what it is, and if you start rooting out a little bit, before you know it, weirdly you’ve ripped out everything and you’ve lost the character.

“And then you start to try and put it back in and it suddenly looks like a Disney version of what it was.” He continues candidly: “I had my misgivings about what they were going to do right from the very beginning, so I just said to my producer, ‘Look, I’ll just say what I think’. He said, ‘Great, do that!’ I enjoy being let off the leash sometimes.”

The new series also features an “incredibly moving story of youth and illness … and the enormous kind of life-affirming dedication and commitment that people put into projects when they are suffering, or have suffered from, illness”. He’s talking about a young couple who met because they both had brain tumours in their teens, and who are now married and “hugely in love”. “Basically, the entire film is a poem, it’s a love song, between them about what they want and making something for themselves to share, knowing that time is incredibly precious.

“I get emotional just thinking about it because they were a lesson to so many people who fret about the colour of their kitchen cabinets or get obsessed about having that particular brand of bifold doors or whatever it is. Actually, when you look at it over time and with a long view you think, ‘What a complete ridiculous waste of energy’.”

Stories of people like that, perhaps, seem even more poignant now because we’ve all had time in 2020 to re-evaluate what’s important in life, I suggest. “And so many of us have lost loved ones or have worried about losing loved ones and, just as we all need a film, a binge-watch, a soap opera, something to take us away from the day-to-day, all of us also realise that we shouldn’t get too obsessed about things that don’t matter – the superficial,” follows Mr McCloud.

“We’ve all come to realise how important loved ones are, and time spent with them, and how, actually, what matters is living life, not just planning it, not just dreaming – getting on and living it.”

When we chat it’s not long after the November UK lockdown has ended, and he muses that the pandemic has also made us think more about design. “Ordinarily our houses don’t get stressed – but in lockdown, suddenly they have,” he says. “Suddenly, we feel imprisoned, suddenly we need somewhere where we can find privacy with our own thoughts, just an hour to ourselves. We need spaces to work, we need spaces to depressurise, to relax; kids need places to do their homework, to do home study.

“So, houses have started to really work hard, and we’ve all had to compromise one way or another. But it means that anybody building that house, or thinking about an extension, or maybe even just buying one of those garden rooms, thinks about them not just for indulgent purposes, but actually for some really functional roles.”

Mr McCloud readily admits he’s “slightly addicted” to his work, and so has relished being able to get back to it this year. But when it comes to his personal life, he has been unable to see friends because he been rigorously self-isolating since March. “I have this filming protocol which protects me, and I do all my filming out of a campervan now, which I drive everywhere, so I’m completely self-contained and at a distance from everybody.

“But they’re not conditions in which you could happily meet friends, do you know what I mean? Wearing 11 layers of clothing in the rain, standing in a field. So, I do miss that, enormously. And I’m looking forward to seeing loved ones, as and when we can all get vaccinated. I mean that’s going to be an extraordinary time, isn’t it? It’s going to be a great flowering of love.”

The new season of Grand Designs started on Wednesday 6 January 2021.

Are you a fan of Grand Designs? Has the pandemic made you want to alter your house in some way?

– With PA

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