George Clarke: "I had to get confident"
Restoration Man presenter George Clarke, aged 39, on why TV changed him, working too hard, and missing out on teenage romance
By the time I was 16, I was already working full time. Since I was 12 years old I’d known I wanted to be an architect. My grandfathers were builders and I remember sitting in Portakabins with 40 other builders eating fry-ups just watching things being constructed. Not a single other occupation ever crossed my mind. So before my GCSEs I wrote to 50 or 60 architectural campuses to say please can I have a job. I left school on the Friday and started working for £40 a week in this tiny architect practice on the Monday. It was a very exciting time.
Being a TV personality was the furthest thing from my mind when I was a teenager. My only ambition was to graduate with enough qualifications to be an architect. I really wasn’t sure I’d be good enough to do that. I thought I was the luckiest person in the world when I got into university. Then in the second year our tutors organised a beach party in South Shields and I remember sitting on the beach and my tutor came over and said: “Just wanted to tell you, you’re the top student in architecture this year.” I thought it was a joke. I couldn’t believe it.
I always got on with people but I was really, really shy as a teenager. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. An old friend of mine who was part of the in-crowd at school, which I was never part of, got in touch recently and said: “Oh my God, you were so shy. We all really loved you but you were so quiet. I can’t believe I watch you on TV now, being so open and confident.”
I think being on TV changed me. I had to get confident. I think telly’s really good fun now, but I didn’t jump when I was offered my first TV job. I was a university tutor and a writer who had never considered TV – it was my agent who put me forward – so I had to be sure I wanted it.
If I’m really honest, I wish I hadn’t worked so hard over the years. I was incredibly dedicated. I never stopped for a minute. Because I didn’t have the confidence, I thought I had to work twice as hard to get anywhere. Looking back, I think I would have been fine. Why did I think I would never achieve this or that? I might have enjoyed myself more. I might have travelled more. I wish I’d been brave enough when I was 17 to just fill a rucksack and go round the world, get myself into £20,000 of debt and worry about it later.
One of my biggest regrets is assuming I didn’t have a chance with any of the absolutely beautiful girls in the cool crowd at school. One of them told me later that they’d have gone out with me if they’d thought I’d be interested, but I was just so quiet they assumed I wasn’t. I thought they were Premier League and I was Vauxhall Conference. But this girl told me: “No, we all fancied you. We used to talk about how hot you were.” And I thought, oh brilliant, why didn’t anyone tell me that at the time?
Last year I was invited to do a reading at a big charity event in Durham Cathedral. If you’d told me when I was 16 I’d be a guest at a thing like that in that building, I’d have laughed at you. Every time I get the train up north to go and see my mum I look across and see the top of that building, built a thousand years ago. It must have been the most awe-inspiring thing imaginable. It’s still incredibly inspiring today. Really magical. I think it’s my favourite building of all.
In 1989, the year George turned 16... Mass protests take place in China’s Tiananmen Square... The Dalai Lama wins Nobel Peace Prize... The Berlin Wall is torn down... Guildford Four are released from prison... Margaret Thatcher celebrates a decade in Downing Street...
George Clarke is Channel 4’s Restoration Man and also fronts the campaigning Great British Property Scandal