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'A big volcano could explode, a tsunami may hit, or a puma might come and steal your dog'

Kevin McCloud is full of admiration for the families who have swapped the rat race for remote island life... but it's probably not something he'd do himself, he tells Keeley Bolger

Published 06/06/2015

Kevin McCloud in Escape To The Wild
Kevin McCloud in Escape To The Wild

Forget sandy shores, gin-clear waters and tropical trees, when it comes to describing life on a desert island, Kevin McCloud is resoundingly pragmatic.

"A volcano might explode, a tsunami might come or a puma might come out of the jungle and steal your dog. The adventure never stops, which is on the one hand exciting, and on the other hand, terrifying."

The Grand Designs presenter journeyed to some of the most remote places on the planet to meet families making new lives for themselves for his new Channel 4 series, Escape To The Wild, but evidently lost none of his trademark shrewd.

"They face all kinds of dangers, which are not always apparent but might strike at any time," explains the 56-year-old, who describes himself as being in the "terrified" camp.

"My great hobby is looking after trees and farming, but that's in England, where everything's pretty predictable and I'm not going to get a really aggressive, grumpy snake trying to bite my leg off," he adds, laughing.

McCloud lives in Somerset, with his wife Suzanna (Zani) and their four children, where, he says, nothing could be more luxurious than a "magnificent sunset with a bottle of wine".

"I found the series more exhausting, more tiring, more demanding - mentally demanding, as well as physically and spiritually - than I thought," he admits.

It's little wonder he was shattered, given the globetrotting he did for the series (there's an island in Tonga, a jungle in Belize, the side of a volcano in Patagonia and sub-Arctic Sweden), which sees him meeting four families, three of whom have young children, trying to make simpler lives for themselves away from the rat race.

"When you do this with kids, you do it with much more conviction and seriousness," says the presenter, who studied history of art and architecture at Cambridge University.

"As the kids grow up, those families have to be prepared to change. That kind of temporary nature of their existence reminded me of the temporariness of all our existence.

"You know, we plot and we plan and we hope and we scrimp and we save, and we think, 'One day I'll do this', but actually, when you have children, (your life is) determined by their paths and their education, and suddenly life takes a different direction."

Although he's not one to hold his tongue, McCloud remains empathetic towards the scale of the families' ambition in the series, even if on the surface of it, their plans to ship off can seem a bit barmy.

"In every case, I went with an open mind and an open heart," he says. "I came back entranced by the places and completely admiring of these individuals, who claim in every case to be like everybody else, but you know they're not."

While McCloud, who trained as a theatre designer before setting up his own lighting design company, doesn't enjoy the "hubris" of celebrity, spurns any opportunity to go out and bats away the suggestion that he's a pin-up for ladies of a certain vintage, he's not so bothered by it that he'd hotfoot it to a remote island.

"I don't want to, because I enjoy other people's company," he says. "Not all day, but I do enjoy the society of other human beings."

Although, as a Somerset dweller, he was rather envious of the surprisingly strong network connections in the remote places he visited.

"You get 3G in the kingdom of Tonga, one of the most isolated places in the world!" he says. "I have to say it puts Cornwall, Devon and Somerset to shame.

"David Cameron is right when he goes to Cornwall and complains about the broadband. Go to Tonga and you'll find it."

And in between chasing off pumas and snakes, he could use the superfast broadband to re-live his driving glory on Top Gear, and the moment he came second in the show's Star In A Reasonably Priced Car competition (he was just pipped to the post by a "20th of a second" by Jamiroquai singer and car enthusiast Jay Kay). But would he go back on the revamped show if he was asked? He's unsure.

"It's very tough, isn't it, because it's holding onto your title," he says. "If you slipped down and didn't improve, you'll have destroyed what little reputation you might have had."

Justifiably proud of his driving title, his professional life has recently been shaped by Slumming It, the series he filmed in India, in which he explored life in a slum.

A passionate supporter of eco-friendly living, McCloud's sustainable home company HAB Housing "is still being influenced by that experience".

"I had to stand on a rubbish tip, 18-inches deep in sludge, and talk to families with kids who were eight years old who have to wade through animal entrails and needles from hospital recycling with their bare hands, looking for plastic bags to recycle," he explains.

"Yet, in every circumstance, I would find people smiling and talking hopefully about what it was they were doing and what it would lead to. And, equally distastefully, I find in the well-off people in Britain a propensity to moan about everything. I think, 'What point of reference do you have?'"

Escape To The Wild, Channel 4, Monday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph

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