George Clarke's Adventures in Americana S1 Ep1. George Clarke, Whitney Plantation. Image: Channel 4
George Clarke is an architect and television presenter, whose work on programmes including George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, Old House New Home and new series George Clarke’s Adventures In Americana showcase his passion for architecture and design. Clarke was born in Sunderland in May 1974. Both of his grandfathers were builders, and Clarke knew he wanted to be an architect from an early age. At 16, he began working for a Washington-based architect. He completed a BTEC in Building and Construction at Wearside College before studying Architecture at Newcastle University. In 1998, he formed his own company, clarke:desai, which he left in 2011 to set up George Clarke + Partners.
After approaching an agent to represent a book he was writing about architecture, Clarke was asked to screen test for a Channel 5 show, Build a New Life in the Country. He was offered the job and went on to front a series of successful shows including The Restoration Man and George Clarke’s Remarkable Renovations.
Clarke is a Prince’s Regeneration Trust ambassador, a patron of the design and architecture charity The Civic Trust, and an ambassador for housing and homelessness charity Shelter. George also works with Maggie’s the cancer charity and with Sunderland Association Football Club on its Beacon of Light and Foundation of Light projects. He is also a Big Issue ambassador.
Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Clarke looks back on the early loss of his father, his youthful ambition, and life in front of the camera.
The year I turned 16 was an amazing year. I’ve never told anybody this in my life, but I remember standing in my mum’s bathroom when I was 16 thinking, ‘This year is amazing and it feels like it is lasting forever.’ I left school, started work – it was a very special time for me.
I was brought up on a on a council estate and I loved it. So this is absolutely not a sob story because it was bloody brilliant. We had the best time ever on my estate. We used to get into a bit of trouble but mainly all we did was ride our BMXs, chase girls and play football. And then, because I was a bit of a nerd, back in my little bedroom in my little council house, I was also reading books, watching documentaries, absorbing myself in the creative arts. Because that was my passion. I was a proper geek. But I didn’t really want anyone to see it so I used to hide that from them.
I remember getting a Mitre Delta football from Argos for my birthday and it felt like a lottery win. It cost my mum about 12 quid and it was beautiful. Me and my mates had a sort of ceremony with it because we couldn’t believe we had this football. They made an arch around me and said I had to be first to kick it. So they crowded around, we placed the ball on the edge of the pitch, and when I kicked it we celebrated like we had won the World Cup. That’s what it was like. We didn’t have a lot, but what we had we loved and celebrated.
I lost my dad when I was very young. He died in a tragic water-skiing accident when I was seven. He was 26. From that young age I think I knew I could either wallow in this and go down a dark road, be angry and bitter about the world that has taken my dad away from me or live every day the best I possibly can. It was awful. I was devastated. It’s something I carry every single day. But I decided I was going to make the absolute most out of life. So I’m all in with life. I’m going to enjoy every day. When I was the age my dad was when he died, I travelled from London to Sunderland and back in a day to stop by his grave. I remember saying, every day past today is a day longer than you had. So I’m going to be grateful for every second of it.
I grew up surrounded by brilliant women – all the women in my family were absolute powerhouses. My mum was only 18 when she had me and mum, my aunties, my cousins were all amazing northern women full of love. We didn’t have any money, but although we didn’t have much, we had enough to be happy and there was always food on the table. My mum was amazing and my stepdad was also brilliant – we lost him a couple of years ago.
When I was 16, I thought everybody was working class. The only person I thought that wasn’t was the Queen! I didn’t understand that we had such a class-based society in Britain. I thought everyone was in the same boat. But this was towards the end of Thatcher – I remember the miners’ strike, the shipyards being closed in Sunderland in the 1980s, how Right to Buy fucked everything because they didn’t replace the housing stock for the next generation. The country, and especially the north-east, was an absolute shitshow.
I knew what I wanted to do from when I was 12 and it shaped everything I did. In all my art and design subjects at school I would always design buildings. For one of my CDT projects, I designed how to refurbish these 1960s concrete prefab buildings on my estate. Most of our estate was pretty good, but these buildings were horrible. So when you think about my shows like Ugly House to Lovely House and Remarkable Renovations – that is exactly what I was doing when I was 15. Architecture and design were my survival. Other people from my estate went down a different path and it didn’t always work out so well. After my dad died, I could have gone down a different route – there was a lot of glue sniffing and gas sniffing.
I was sent to see a careers officer at the local library and said I wanted to be an architect. He got this huge book out and just told me straight out I could not be an architect unless I did maths A level – and there was no way on this living planet I was doing that. All I wanted to do at school was design technology, art and sculpture, I loved English and history, but I couldn’t stand maths with a passion. I was so pissed off when he said you will never be an architect that I walked out. But I also started to panic a bit.
I wrote about 50 letters, to all the architects in Washington, Sunderland and Newcastle. I went home, opened the Yellow Pages – because there was no internet in 1989 – and wrote saying I don’t want to do my A levels, please can I have a job? I got an interview with this tiny one-man band architect practice down the road from my mum’s. He was a wonderful man called David Johnson. I got the job, they paid me £40 a week and I did a BTEC in Building and Construction one day a week. I left school on Friday, started on the Monday and it blew my mind. I couldn’t imagine anything better. I thought I’d won the lottery 1,000 times over. To work in a tiny practice and be the only apprentice, I was doing everything from making cups of tea to sorting out the library system with every product from door handles to roof tiles. It wasn’t a job for me, it wasn’t work – it was an education, it was a privilege.
You can have millions of regrets in life but I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel unbelievably lucky and honoured and privileged to be in the position I am today. But if I could say anything to my younger self, I would tell him not to be so scared. Because I think inside I was petrified. I was not a confident kid. I was pretty quiet at school and wasn’t very cool. I just kept myself to myself and behind the scenes I was very studious. One of my teachers, Mrs McColl, wrote in my school report that I was a ‘kind and gentle soul’. My mum asked how much I paid her – because you wouldn’t say that about many Sunderland lads back in the day!
It’s nuts that I’m now in front of the camera. My younger self would never believe I’d end up on TV. There’s no logic to it. Because I was not an entertainer at school. I would do anything to avoid saying anything in front of people. So that would be like a fucking fairy tale. He’d say that’s bullshit, that’s never going to happen to you. The idea I would be going into parliament to give advice to a Select Committee on social housing and making TV programmes that would be broadcast all over the world or talking to the next government about what they are going to do – if you told my teenage self he would think you were full of shit. But my mum always says I’ve earned my luck. She tells people you’ve no idea how hard he works. And I always have. Every opportunity I’ve had I get my head down and work so hard, because I didn’t want to fuck it up.
When I started in television, someone said we’re offering you the job because you’re really passionate about architecture and design. I don’t present anything else. I present programmes about architecture and design and property and houses – and, you know, tree houses, caravans, camper vans, quirky business spaces. But it’s still design. So I still don’t see myself as a performer. When I get paid to wax lyrical about what I am passionate about, it is a privilege. If people watch and enjoy it, are educated or entertained by it, then I’m the happiest man in the world.
Love is the biggest thing in the world, isn’t it? On relationships, I’m probably not the best person to talk to because I’ve been divorced twice. So it’s not easy. But when it comes to love and friendship and family, it’s the best thing in the world. I’m an emotional softie. You’ve probably seen me cry on the telly. But having a passion for something is about love. So I’m passionate about life because I love life. I’m passionate about my career – it’s not a job, it’s a way of life for me. And I’m absolutely passionate about my kids and my friends and family because I really deeply love them. I always tell my mates I love them. And my kids are like, Dad, you keep saying that. Yes. And I’m going to say it every day for the rest of my life, get used to it.
George Clarke’s Adventures in America is on Channel 4 from 21 January.
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