Fans go nuts for TV architect George Clarke

HE MAY consider himself first and foremost "an architect who just happens to be on TV" but that doesn’t stop Sunderland born George Clarke from receiving some very odd fan mail.

George Clarke
George Clarke

HE MAY consider himself first and foremost "an architect who just happens to be on TV" but that doesn’t stop Sunderland born George Clarke from receiving some very odd fan mail.

The 35-year-old, whose family still live in Blackfell, Washington, is currently on our screens in Channel 4’s Sunday night show Restoration Man. But with several property series behind him - Build a New Life in the Country, A Dream Home Abroad and The Home Show - his high profile has led to some bizarre incidents.

"I had a bra thrown on stage once, which made me laugh a lot. I kind of feel like Tom Jones when that happens," he says. "People have sent underwear for me to sign and send back and I’ve been sent pencils from people saying ‘can you use my pencil on your next show when you’re sketching?’"

At Christmas he was even sent a big box containing chocolate nuts, a nut cracker and a squirrel, from a Twitter fan group called ‘The Nutters’, all because of an innocuous tweet George made about spilling hot coffee on his groin area. "It was probably the most bizarre surreal package I’ve been sent," he laughs.

Men also get in touch, but they tend to want building advice. "I get letters from guys going, 'Look mate I want to change my house and my wife's doing my head in. Can you look at my plan and let me know what to do,'." says George.

Although he now lives in West London with his half Spanish wife Catriona and three children Georgie, seven, Emilio, five and Iona, two, George grew up in Pallion and then Washington, attending Oxclose comprehensive.

It’s clear he’s still very passionate about the North East - returning two or three times a year to visit family - and is working with Sunderland city council on a master plan for the riverside area.

"Newcastle and Gateshead have been totally transformed over the last 20 years but the smaller and newer cities like Sunderland have been left behind a bit," he says. "The things that’s great about Newcastle is when they built the law courts just before I became an architecture student, it triggered all that amazing regeneration along the Quayside. What I want is to do something similar in Sunderland.

"At the moment the city doesn’t really connect with the river. You’ve got that big derelict Vaux site. I think it should be a cultural hub for the city. There’s no point in just building a big supermarket. It’s cultural projects that change cities like that."

George has been passionate about property since he was a nipper. Both his grandads were builders - one built the Silksworth ski slope - so he would sketch buildings and sit in diggers with them from the age of six or seven. It was a strong focus for George after his dad died when he was just six.

"There was nothing else I ever wanted to do," he says. "When most of the kids were playing with building blocks and pieces of Lego, I was actually on building sites."

His mum Anne, a teacher at George’s old school, eventually re-married Allan and George became even more obsessed with architecture declaring it his future career at the age of just 12.

"Durham Cathedral was the building that made me want to be an architect," he says. I remember going to visit the building and it blew me away with its unbelievable beauty. I wish I could design a building that would last a thousand years."

In between reading builders’ manuals, George enjoyed the odd pint at Idols in Sunderland before becoming a student at Wearside College and then Newcastle University.

"I really miss the nightlife," says George. "I’m very biased but there’s probably no better night out than in Newcastle. And Northumberland for me is one of the best undiscovered landscapes in Britain."

After University George worked for the architect Sir Terry Farrell in London where one of his first jobs there was to help in the planning of Newcastle’s Centre For Life. He later set up his own practice with colleague Bobby Desai where his TV presenter potential was spotted.

Architect George Clarke
Architect George Clarke

"I was coming back every Friday to teach post grads at Newcastle Uni when I was asked to write a book," explains George. "So I got a book agent in Covent Garden and I didn’t realise she was a broadcasting agent as well. She asked me to do a screen test for Build a New Life in the Country and I said no way I’ll probably be rubbish at it, but she persuaded me and I got the job."

As the recession hit, property show formats had to change as Sold signs became few and far between. This led to Channel 5’s The Home Show where participants handed George a cheque to completely remodel their homes. Sometimes, however, there wasn’t enough money to finish the job.

"It wasn’t supposed to be about making a financial gain but of course we didn’t want them to over invest in their property," says George, who’ll be filming another series later this year. "It was disappointing when we ran out of money but we tried to stretch the budget as far as we could.

"Most of them didn’t want to move because they’d been living in the area for a long time and the kids were settled in school. They had an asset that they hadn’t maximised properly and then there’s the cost of moving which goes down the drain. To stay where you are and improve what you’ve got is a much better investment really."

One of the key scenes in The Home Show is when George asks a couple to pick out their favourite item in a showroom to gauge if they have the same taste. When it comes to his own home - a 1910 Edwardian semi in London with an ultra modern interior - George says he and wife Catriona would probably pick similar pieces.

"We both like modern, contemporary and fresh but not to the point where it’s boring," he says. "We like the modern design classics like Eames chairs and anything by Vitra and Knoll. It was designed 50, 60, 70 years ago and still looks great today."

Now George is back on our screens in Restoration Man, which follows people hoping to turn decayed, listed buildings such as chapels, windmills, military buildings and ice storage houses into their dream homes.

However there are no properties in the North East. "It’s a real shame," says George. "We’re going to have to sort that out for series two."

He’s more hands on than Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs offering moral support, planning tips, financial advice and the like. "Some days I felt like a psychotherapist," he says.

It follows stories such as Gareth who bought an old chapel for £50,000 in a pub auction, with the same amount of money to do it up.

"I called it, 'Restoration by eBay'," says George. "He bought an old snooker table from the snooker hall down the road and took the slate out of it to use as the kitchen work top, and he drove all the way to south Wales to pick up a spiral staircase which he bought for about £100."

Other stories are incredibly emotional, according to George who’s become known for welling up on previous shows. "There are a lot of tears," he admits. "There was one story in Anglesea. If you’re not in absolute floods of tears when you watch it, I’ll be amazed. It’s so emotional that I’ve never watched it al the way through. I was in tears, the cameraman was in tears, the director was in tears."

The series also highlights George’s personal bete noirs - the 800,000 properties standing empty across Britain which he believes should be brought back into use with VAT exemption for restoration projects, and overly zealous planning restrictions from English Heritage.

He admits he could talk about property all day. "People hate getting me around for dinner, even my agent won't invite me around. She's too scared, just in case I pick up on things she never realised. You go round to someone's house and you think, 'I'd move that wall six inches that way and I'd move that skylight.’ It’s a bit sad really but it is an obsession."

George is adamant he’ll only ever do property shows so don’t expect to see him chewing on witchetty grubs any time soon.

"I give you the authority, that if I say yes to ice skating or anything like that, you can actually shoot me through the head," he laughs. "Celebrity means nothing to me. It might last four, five or six years but I’ll be an architect till I die. That’s my job, that’s what I love more than anything else."

 

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