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Archive - Thursday, 12 May 2005
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Building a star
Channel Five watchers are used to hearing about George's marvellous medicine when it comes to building property dreams abroad. George Clarke, the North-East-born architect, talks to Viv Hardwick about becoming the face of TV property and his new series Build A New Life.
DREAM schemes dominate reality TV these days and the new North-East star of property programmes, George Clarke, admits that he too got the bug when it came to building for fun in the sun. Clarke, from Washington, has just finished presenting A Dream Home Abroad on five and is now filming a UK follow-up called Build A New Life.
The format features budding self-builders risking tens of thousands of pounds by trying to breathe new life into old habitats - with the overseas investors facing an additional language barrier.
Clarke, so often the level-headed voice of reason on TV, confesses that he lashed out on an old Italian house while filming last year.
"No comment," laughs George at first when asked about what happened next but adds: "I got told off by my wife and I sold it very quickly to a friend of mine. I only went to see the place twice."
He chuckles and adds a further "no comment" about how much he paid.
"There is absolutely no doubt about it that the idea of life in the sun wears off on you," says the architect, who is probably grateful that a further series of the popular programme is unlikely to be commissioned by five.
That's not because the series was unpopular but due to TV politics which has seen Channel 4's property show team relocate relocate relocate to five and select Clarke as its main presenter.
George's TV adventure started when he decided to write a book about architecture and was told he needed a literary agent. By chance, the same agent talked about him to Dan Chambers, the head of five, who was desperately seeking an expert for a new series called Property Dreams.
"I didn't want to do the show at first because nobody actually did any building work which I really enjoy seeing. I did it in the end to see if I enjoyed doing TV."
It came as a complete shock to Clarke when Ben Frow, who created Location Location Location, Grand Designs and Property Ladder, moved to five last year and picked out Clarke as the "new face" of property for the channel.
"That was amazing because I was just a little expert who turned up when needed. I've haven't got any idea why I was chosen," confesses George, although he suspects the growing popularity of the North-East accent was probably the deciding factor.
"The gospel honest truth is that I thought I'd be absolutely crap and way out of my depth, but I suppose he got excited about me getting excited about architecture if that makes any sense. I really do care about the stories and it's not about me wanting to be a celebrity."
Build A New Life, made by the same team which produces Grand Designs on C4, shows nearly all the people involved emerging successful and features a Whitley Bay couple trying to do up a £120,000 fortified farm in the Hexham area while working full-time.
"It's an absolute cracker. They're in their fifties and they are self-building a ruined 16th century farmhouse and it is on the most exposed and beautiful site in Britain I have ever seen. They finish work, drive to Hexham and build. It's unbelievable. When the floods came, half their belongings went down the hillside, but they just get on with it. How can you knock people taking on something as ambitious as that?"
Five found its nightmare property people by sending researchers to exhibitions which fool some into believing you can buy a wrecked home in Spain for £5,000.
He says: "People are tempted into it, but it's quite phenomenal how blind they are. When filming I find it difficult to stand back and not tell them what I really think, but if I did say what I really thought I don't think they'd ask me any more or even let me into their home.
I was gobsmacked by a couple in Italy because if they'd waited for my advice before buying a second property I'd have told them not to touch it with a bargepole.
"The thing is people fall in love with the property and particularly the price and they just jump in feet first and go for it. On the one hand you think 'that's incredibly brave' but I don't think they realise how big a struggle it can be. And, let's face it, the Brits are generally pretty horrendous when it comes to languages... I know I am because I can just about speak English."
He feels housebuyers abroad should spend at least a year or two beforehand really preparing for a new life and forget all thoughts of foreigners taking back-handers and realise "red tape is actually ten times worse".
Even so, around 125,000 people last year tried to leave Britain for a new life abroad and George reckons around 15 or 20 per cent will fail.
"Houses are the most expensive thing you will ever pay for in your life, imagine going into a bank and walking out with £200,000 and the effects on your life and lifestyle."
He talks about admiring the people who give up the 24/7 rat race to find a better life and walks straight into the question of how he's coping with a new-born second son and the double life of London architect and TV presenter.
"Architecture is like a hobby for me and I wanted to do it so much from the age of 12," says George, who left Oxclose Comprehensive School, at 16 to start work for a nearby architect called David W Johnson.
Wearside College, a First Class BA Honours at Newcastle University and a diploma from London's Bartlett School of Architecture added the academic qualifications required. An amazing transformation for a Maths-hating schoolboy who ended up with the year prize for architecture in 1995 and a job offer with Thornton Brown. After moving on to work with world famous architect Sir Terry Farrell, George formed his own company clark:desai with partner Bobby Desai and clients have included Jamie Oliver.
He even met wife Catriona through architecture as a result of designing her brother's London flat. "When I was at university I used to do renovation to pay my way because I was always horrendously skint. Her brother invited me round one night for dinner and I met his sister and three years later we got married."
The couple now live in West London and George admits he's got an understanding other half "who is aware of how hard I work, but for the first time ever I don't work weekends which I always have in the past. When my second son was born I knew things had to change."
Football is another passion with a young George trailing every other week to see Sunderland under managers like Lawrie McMenemy and claims: "I was nearly scarred for life.
"I watched God knows how many years of rubbish from the age of 11 with my uncle. It was desperate, and then when I moved to London they got promoted to the premiership."
"My son got a signed Real Madrid shirt off David Beckham the other day, so I 'm going to try and get him into David's academy... anything to get him into football, as long as he plays for Sunderland."
George's mum and dad, Anne (who works at Oxclose School) and Allan, still live in Blackfell with one of his sisters and two other sisters live close by. The rest of his family, including his gran, live in Sunderland.
"My mum is just frighteningly proud. She's chuffed to bits and my sisters can't wait for the day when I'm on the cover of OK magazine. They have absolutely no respect for my architecture whatsoever, but love the thought of me being on TV."
* The preliminary transmission date for Build A New Life is May 27 or early June with six programmes in the summer and six more shown in the autumn
* The recent Dream Home Abroad competition for a home in Spain was won by Dean Buick from Durham.