TV

George Clarke: 'My absolute driver for the rest of my days will be the f**king housing crisis'

TV architect George Clarke explains his lifelong passion for social housing in exclusive new interview with The Big Issue

George Clarke

George Clarke. Image: Mike Lawn/Shutterstock

Architect and television presenter George Clarke has recalled growing up on a Sunderland council estate – and explained that he looks back with huge affection on those formative, teenage years.

“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,” Clarke, whose hit shows include Restoration Man and new series George Clarke’s Adventures in Americana for Channel 4, told The Big Issue.

In a wide-ranging interview that also takes in his response to losing his father at a young age, his lifelong love of architecture and design, and why he would never have imagined ever appearing in front of the camera when he was a shy youngster, Clarke painted a picture of the working class community he was part of.

“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,” he said.

“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 think architecture, design and the creative arts were key to my survival. I really threw myself into it. Because I used to love learning and some other people from my estate went down a different path. After my dad died, I could have gone down a very different route – there was drugs, glue sniffing and all sorts of other things also happening.”

But Clarke’s fond memories extended to a moment that showed the sense of solidarity among his friends.

“I remember getting a Mitre Delta football from Argos for my birthday and it felt like a lottery win,” he said.

“It cost my mum about twelve 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,” continued Clarke. “We didn’t have a lot, but what we had we loved and celebrated.”

Clarke also revealed that he didn’t realise he was working class until he went to university in Newcastle, after working his apprenticeship at a local architects firm and passing his B-Tec at Wearside College.

“When I was 16, I thought everybody was working class,” he said. “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 – and 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.

”But Sunderland is absolutely bouncing back after the devastation and destruction of the Tories and Thatcher. They screwed us, basically. Like Thatcher did most of the North, really. But it’s bouncing back. There’s a brilliant regeneration plan.”

Asked for his own current Big Issue, George Clarke returned to his passion for social housing. And his fury for the politicians who have allowed the housing crisis to grow.

“My big issue is the same one that you’ve heard me banging on about for years, man,” he said. “It’s the fucking housing crisis. I will bang that drum and till I’m dead.

“My absolute driver for the rest of my days will be the fucking housing crisis. And the fact that we’re not building social housing, or whatever you want to call it. My point is the provision of a safe, secure and comfortable home for those people most in need. That’s it.

“Now, how we get there, what you call it, how its funded, that’s a whole journey that’s got to be explored. But that single goal for me is of everyone having a safe, secure and comfortable home, whether they own it, rent it or get it for free. We need to do it. That’s my only agenda. That’s my only driving force – whether I’m talking to politicians, working with The Big Issue and Shelter.”

After establishing himself as an architect, Clarke began to combine television presenting with his design work. But, he said, it is all part of the same passion.

“When I started in television, someone said we’re offering you the job because you’re really passionate about architecture and design,” he said.

“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, then I’m the happiest man in the world.”

For his new series, Clarke heads to North America to explore the iconic architecture.

“This is the series I’ve always wanted to make,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to make an architectural travelogue, to explore the architecture of other places and inspire and entertain people through that.

“It wasn’t easy to get made. Because obviously there are a lot of travelogues that get made with a comedian or whoever going to whatever country and go bungee jumping and stuff.

“But whenever anybody goes on holiday, you’re exploring architecture and design. Even if you don’t realise it. You’re going to go to cafes, restaurants, a museum or gallery, you’re going to go to a railway station and through an airport. You are always experiencing architecture and design in the built environment.

“And the reason we picked America first is because it goes back to my childhood a bit. So many of us were inspired by American films and Hollywood and American design.

“From Elvis to American cars to the moon landings, America has been a huge influence on British culture. “And some of the best architects in Britain went to study in America – Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, my former boss Sir Terry Farrell. It’s about getting under the skin of architecture and design of a country – so it is everything from diners to drive-ins, lifeguard towers.”

George Clarke’s Adventures in Americana airs on Channel 4 on Sunday nights.

Read George Clarke’s full Letter to My Younger Self in The Big Issue magazine, on sale from 29 January to 4 February.

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work, buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

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