Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Britain's most popular interior decorator, is the high-profile costume designer for this winter's production of Peter Pan at The Royal Festival Hall. The show, which stars Richard Wilson and Susannah York, is due to open on Thursday. Tom Bowtell caught up with 'the people's dandy' to see find out about motorbikes, Merlin and so much more.
“Dreadfully sorry, the train was delayed; apparently they had the wrong sort of driver in the cab.” Laurence Llewelyn Bowen is fashionably late for the interview. Frustrated by the vagaries of First Great Western he has taken matters into his own hands and is speaking to me from the back of a Harley Davidson as it dashes through the night. I am staggered when he admits that he is currently wearing an anorak, although he hastily adds that he is also wearing a dazzling chrome crash helmet and a long black leather jacket which “billows out behind like a bat”. “A bit like Meat Loaf?” I venture. “Yes, but much, much thinner,” he replies.
So how did Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the most famous fop on British television, the man at the heart of the home-improvement revolution and one of the country’s most-mimicked men find himself involved with this winter’s production of Peter Pan at the Festival Hall? “I haven’t done any design for the theatre since I was at college, but I’ve been wittering on about doing more stage work for years. I did some work at the Criterion Theatre a while ago and met Bob Eadie down there. He got in touch with me in the summer and asked me design a couple of costumes, and I said, quite frankly, if I’m going to get involved I might as well do the whole lot, and he was more than happy to have that particular responsibility removed.” And what lavish designs has Laurence conjured for the audience’s delectation? “It’s all monochromatic. It’s all shades of black and white and fits in with the set which is very much inspired by Edwardian book illustration, and in particular Arthur Rackham [who famously illustrated J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan] so I’ve taken that on board.”
"The pirates have gone a bit Queen Anne"
While Laurence has stayed broadly faithful to the Edwardian feel of the production, there are inevitably a number of areas where he admits that he “let rip a bit.” “The pirates have gone a bit Queen Anne, and there are some more contemporary elements, Tiger Lily ended up with more than a sprinkling of Jennifer Lopez about her, while Peter Pan himself ended up quite punky.” By now, Laurence has completely forgotten that he’s wearing an anorak and is really getting into his stride: “There’s an energy to Peter Pan, a sort of sexual tension, so I thought it would be nice to keep it quite rock and roll.”
Much of the joy of home-decorating makeover shows comes when the returning homeowners are utterly appalled by the fuchsia drapes and MDF monstrosities their beloved rooms have been filled with. It was thus with some trepidation that Laurence faced the cast of Peter Pan. “When I went to Richard Wilson and Susannah York and asked if they liked them, I’m ashamed to admit that I was suffering from the heebie-jeebies. Fortunately, everybody seems to be more than comfortable with the outfits I’ve put them in.” David Bamber, who plays Hook's First Mate Smee in the show, is certainly impressed with Laurence's efforts: "The design looks absolutely brilliant. I’ve got this wonderful knitted jumper which, in a slightly different version, could be sold at Nicole Fahri. It’s wonderful black and white stripes."
Having developed a taste for costume designing, is Lawrence keen to do a J-Lo and launch his own range of Llewelyn-Bowen clothing? “I can’t say that I have, actually. Day-to-day clothing is so well served these days, although I suppose I should do it out of spite because Jasper Conran’s started doing tableware!” While high street fashion doesn’t appeal to him, Laurence is keen to do more work in the theatre. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed doing these costumes, and I’d like to do more or this sort of thing. In the future, I’d love to look at maybe designing an entire production myself. The set crew on this show are absolutely lovely, and [designer] Will Bowen (no relation) and I have stayed in contact throughout just to make sure that we don’t upstage each other.” He pauses. “Something that doesn’t come naturally to me.”
At this point Kenny, Laurence’s mysterious motorbike chauffeur, really opens the throttle and the rest of the interview is conducted at a half bellow because of what Laurence calls “a bit of air turbulence at this end”.
Perhaps strangely for such a theatrical character, Laurence isn’t actually a voracious theatre-goer. “I like the more static, more abstracted theatre art forms, I love opera, but it’s one of those things when you’re fast approaching middle-age and you’ve got young children when you find yourself thinking ‘I must go to the opera more often’ and then about a week later you think ‘I must go to the theatre more often’ and in the end it gets to the point when you realise you haven’t had a video out for about six weeks. I’m ashamed to confess that the Salome in Paris about 18 months ago was the last thing I saw.”
While Laurence has no burning desire to make the leap from backstage to front, we can reveal to the world that he will be making his stage debut later this year, in village pantomime at an undisclosed location in Cornwall. “By some phenomenal synchronicity, the pantomime is also Peter Pan.” However, despite a coiffure seemingly made for the role, Laurence won’t be playing Hook: “I’ve been sworn to absolutely secrecy about who I’m playing, but it’s somebody I’ve never actually seen in Peter Pan before. The theatre only seats 70, so I expect they’ll be pretty hot property …” You heard it here first.
It is commonly assumed that Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen is essentially a fictional creation, taking the stereotype of the dandyish interior-decorator to a whole new level, but is there a deeper, more philosophical soul behind the LLB who adorns our screens? “I’d love to say that there was a small, quivering, pink mole of a person inside because it would make me a lot more interesting, but I can honestly say that I really am this shallow all the way through,” he says proudly, before adding; “I’m like plywood.”
"I'm like plywood"
Shallow he may be, but boring he isn’t. He is also remarkably erudite and it is no surprise that until he was sixteen he actually wanted to become a barrister. “Well I think I realised that I was swimming uphill intellectually with that one, and as my mother pointed out at the time, I was seduced by being the centre of attention and wearing a weird outfit – something I ended up doing anyway.” His website makes the extraordinary boast that Laurence’s ability to perform miracle transformations may be a trait passed down from one of his alleged ancestors, the legendary Merlin of Camelot: “I have some really quite eccentric great aunts who absolutely swear blind that this is the case. I don’t know how the hell you prove something like that, but it’s better than being descended from some boring Victorian industrialist.” Sadly there are no documents to prove the connection, although Laurence claims he did “find Merlin’s cheque-book the other day”.
Whether he has magic in his blood or otherwise, Llewelyn-Bowen certainly has a special effect on many of his fans, who show their appreciation in the form of some rather unusual correspondences. “We’re getting some very very weird stuff from America at the moment; the kind of fan mail that we get from Britain is great, a good old end-of-the pier flirt, but the Americans are fantastically, shall we say, complicated about the kind of information they want to share with me about themselves. There’s one lady that is convinced that wherever I turn up I bring rainbows.”
As well as being the inspiration behind some of the world’s weirdest fantasies, Llewelyn-Bowen is also a popular target for many comedians. He recently made a fleeting appearance in The League Of Gentlemen which concluded with his untimely death beneath the wheels of a transit van, and he is one of impressionist Alistair McGowan’s favourite characters, gallivanting around with a fully-grown horse’s tail protruding from his rear: “It’s very funny seeing yourself perceived and recreated by somebody else. I think that what Alistair does is actually bloody funny, I find it difficult to see myself in it, although plenty of people do, so I take their word for it. I love things like the tail and I keep moaning to my tailor to get me a long horse hair tail at the back of my suits, I think tails could be the new black.”
"The kind of fan mail that we get from Britain is great, a good old end-of-the pier flirt"
While he is well aware of the humorous side of his demeanour, and takes the ribbing well, Laurence becomes deeply serious when pondering what must, for him, be the ultimate question: “What is your favourite colour?” After considerable consideration, during which he weighs up 50 or 60 different shades of bluey-pinky-purple, he finally lumps for Delphinium as his current hue-du-moment.
With that definitive statement made, Kenny revs up the Harley, pulls off a wheelie and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, great great great great great great great great great great grandson of Merlin of Camelot, is gone, like a bat out of hell in an anorak.