For a self-styled “Southern ponce”, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is surprisingly big in, and on, Britain’s equally self-styled “premier” resort, Blackpool.
The divinely decadent designer has become Blackpool by absorption in our popular culture, complete with his own waxwork in Madame Tussauds.
As creative director of Blackpool Illuminations, Laurence relishes, he admits, the thought of his kids going back to their “snotty boarding schools” after the summer hols and talking about how much they loved Blackpool ... while some of the rest are “orf” to St Moritz or the Seychelles on daddy’s private jet.
“Given a choice between Bali or Blackpool, I’d pick Blackpool every time, seriously,” says Laurence.
“As a designer, it’s a shameless ego trip, to get six miles of something so public, so sparkly, even visible from space, is a joy, rather than labouring over some incredibly contrived shade of beige in south east England.”
Blackpool has become his reality check, the resort to which he retreats, between bigger, posher, money spinning assignments, that keep him on the box, in business, as one of Britain’s top designers, and help keep the kids in private schools, and dapper dad in dandy attire.
“I love this gig,” he admits. “I think it helps I didn’t have any sentimental attachment to Blackpool. I judged it entirely on how I saw it rather than coloured by childhood memories.
“I remember seeing the Winter Gardens, for a redesign job, back in the ’80s, and being astonished there was a corner of Britain where architecture and design could bring a smile to the face of the shivering masses, rather than impose the Victorian ideal that we owned the world upon them.
“I love the work of Frank Matcham (the theatre architect) for much the same reason.
“I think that’s when my close professional relationship with Blackpool began.
“What you see is what you get with Blackpool – but the secret rests in learning to really see what you’ve got there.”
You could apply the same principle to LLB himself. What you see isn’t quite what you get. He looks a bit of a fop, but is no pushover. He’s a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, the lupine grin a bit of a giveaway.
He’s also effectively giving services away to Blackpool right now, for a consultancy fee so low, given his stature, that others have asked if there’s a couple of Os missing off the figure.
While preferring not to talk money, Laurence zeros in on that point, and says he gives the fee to charity. “The accountancy is so ridiculous it doesn’t touch my books.”
This chap is one of the best at what he does, arguably the best, even if most of us can only afford to buy his designer bedding at Freeport outlet village.
“I do Matalan now,” he adds.
Hiring Laurence for the Lights is Blackpool Illuminations equivalent of, say, Layton Institute headhunting Vivienne Westwood to take over the wardrobe department.
“I rather think Blackpool would have asked Vivienne too, or Paul Smith, had they not been washing their hair in Peru or whatever they do.”
He’s become one of Blackpool’s best, and best known, ambassadors.
In public relation terms, the now annual update of the Lights by Laurence of Glamtasia is a triumph, a coup lesser resorts would kill for, Laurence chatting affably about getting the “hot pants” off the bears on the Bispham Lights tableau because “they make them look menacing.”
Walsall Lights would doubtless love to him astray in the Midlands, with its siren lure of nearby Birmingham.
“That was the crucible of the Arts and Crafts Movement,” Laurence admits.
But he knows Blackpool’s history, too, and it’s made him ours.
“I love Blackpool. If I was in it for the money the Valkryrian harpies, who make sure I don’t do my own deals, make sure my name is spelt correctly, make sure I pay their mortgages, would keep me working hard on wholly commercial collections.
“I am the goose that lays their golden egg for market. Blackpool isn’t pro bono but it’s the bone thrown at me to keep me quiet.
“I do it for the heck of it, I can do what I like creatively, am not beholden to anyone. Blackpool is my treat for being a good boy, the work I do because I want to.”
Born in Kensington, Laurence owes his sense of whimsy to Welsh roots, the inner celt embracing the seaside’s surreality.
“Blackpool is run entirely by bossy women,” he adds, “it’s deliciously barking.
“The Lights give people a really shared experience. I don’t get that on telly, or on the high street, it’s a balance sheet at the end of the day.
“There’s nothing I love more, as a designer, than making people smile at my work. By God I love that side of it! But Blackpool must believe in itself. It has such low self esteem.
“The Lights are a remarkable institution.
“Blackpool’s been seen as a blue collar bootless Babylon but it has real integrity. There’s something deep, special, and timeless in the Lights. It’s a privilege to be part of it.”