'My father's illness was never discussed... we children didn't understand what was going on'
Losing his father as a child had a massive impact on Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. He tells Gabrielle Fagan how he’s determined that the lessons he learned won’t be in vain
It was "a dark, complicated time", is how Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen describes the trauma of his father's rapid death from blood cancer when he was a child. His mother Patricia, a teacher already battling multiple sclerosis and struggling to walk, subsequently had to fight to keep the family - nine-year-old Laurence and his younger brother and sister - together.
"It sounds as though I was brought up in some Dickensian novel, but it wasn't like that at all," insists the flamboyant style guru, now 54.
Today, Llewelyn-Bowen - who shot to fame on TV's Changing Rooms in the Nineties and has forged a hugely successful interior design career - is as confident, open and charming in real life as he is on screen.
But, he admits: "When I was young, I used to dread people asking me about my family and my parents because I would have to say what happened, and I could see people getting really sad."
He was only eight when his father Trevor, an eminent Harley Street orthopaedic surgeon, was diagnosed with leukaemia at Christmas time in 1973. He died seven months later in July, 1974, aged 42.
In his new role as ambassador for the national Make Blood Cancer Visible campaign, Llewelyn-Bowen is speaking out about the "huge impact" of his father's death, to help raise awareness of symptoms and treatment for a cancer which he points out claims more lives than breast or prostate cancer.
"I wouldn't want any other child to go through what me and my family went through," he says quietly.
He vividly remembers that Christmas 45 years ago, when unbeknown to him, his father's cancer had taken a hold.
"My father was very successful and worked incredibly hard to create the 'perfect life' for his family, but it meant we didn't see much of him," he says. "I'd so looked forward to the holiday to spend time with him, and look back with some guilt now to think how grumpy and sulky I was, and not a very nice son because he wasn't well. I just felt so disappointed and cheated of rare special time with him."
He and his siblings only saw their father twice more before he died. "In those days, there was something almost shameful about being diagnosed with cancer - it was a death sentence and people were expected to shuffle away into a dark corner and that was it," he explains.
His father spent his time in hospital or a hospice. "His illness wasn't discussed, so it was a period of such silence and remoteness. Apart from knowing he was very sick, we children didn't understand what was going on. Not only that, other people around us didn't understand about blood cancers, nor had they heard of leukaemia."
When his father did return to the house for a visit at Easter, it was a shock. "The spread of the disease was incredibly quick. My father had to undergo horribly invasive chemotherapy. When he came home for about a week, he had no hair and was wearing a wig.
"I was totally unprepared to see him like that," Llewelyn-Bowel recalls. "He must have felt appalling and couldn't cope with talking. Really, he just wanted to stay in bed and be left alone."
The father and son shared a "bond" - he recalls how his father was "a flamboyant dresser" - a trait he clearly inherited, as well as his father's interests. "Although we saw little of each other, I felt very close to him as we both shared a love of history and visiting stately homes and churches, but that was of course impossible once he got ill. To me, then it just felt as though he was withdrawing from me," says the designer.
On the day of his father's death, he recalls arriving home elated because he'd won a medal in a Royal Academy national children's painting competition. "When I got in, my mother gathered us together and told us he'd died. She'd warned us he was dying two days before. I was never able to talk to my father about what was happening, or to say goodbye. I have a horrible feeling my father didn't want to burden me with that goodbye, but I feel so sorry for him that that wasn't possible."
He believes the approach was well-intentioned but "quite a Victorian way to minimise our distress by allowing my father, as he dwindled, simply to disappear slowly from our lives and slide into the realms of memory. We children didn't go to the funeral," he adds.
The "gap" in the family subsequently was huge, he says, and Llewellyn-Bowen compensated by immersing himself in his father's library. "He was interested in mythology, heraldry, castles and costume. He had a collection of encyclopaedias from the 1930s, which I still have, and they captured my imagination," he says, crediting them as formative grounding for his design work.
He's categoric that although there were moments of great sadness in his childhood, positivity prevailed thanks to the enormous strength and courage of his mother, who died, aged 70, in 2002. "She had to be very strong to keep us together because as a relatively immobile disabled widow, Social Services were concerned she wouldn't cope with three children. It was a very real threat that we'd be taken away from her.
"She went back to work as a teacher and although we didn't ever have much money, we survived," Llewelyn-Bowen says proudly.
"It was a complicated period, but when I look back on it, I don't see it as a tragic time. I don't think it damaged me. It showed me very early on that there is a fragility to everything we take for granted, but it also showed me how much you have to appreciate what you've got."
Indeed, he strongly believes the "turbulence and that difficulty galvanised" him into making the most of his life and forging his design career.
He points out: "You often find children who have faced something big in their childhood can be empowered and energised by it. I think that was the case with us. My sister and brother were successful very early in their careers.
"I think my father's legacy and my mother's was giving me a very strong sense of wanting to get on with things, to be decisive, optimistic and to find a creative solution to every difficulty."
A regular on BBC's DIY SOS, he splits him time between his beautiful, sprawling 17th century manor house in Gloucestershire, where he lives with his wife Jackie and their daughters and families - and Australia and Asia, where he is a mainstay on TV interiors competitions.
He's driven to make people more aware of blood cancers - "this insidious, evil disease" - so that symptoms can be recognised quickly and people can receive early treatment.
"The earlier you catch it, the better are your chances of surviving," he urges. "If you pick up on symptoms and check it out with a GP, there are hugely improved treatments out there."
He's conscientious about his own health. "I grew up in the carefree days of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but since I hit middle age, I've taken it all more seriously!
"I've given up my heavy smoking habit, watch what I eat, and regularly work out on a running machine," he says. "If your body's working well, your mind works better."
He and his wife Jackie, who've been married 30 years, by sad coincidence have a shared experience of maternal illness. Her mother, Diana, also has multiple sclerosis.
"We're aware that there may be some kind of propensity in the family for MS, but you can't live your life worrying about something that is probably very unlikely to affect you or your family," he says philosophically.
Instead, he focuses on relishing his own family life. The couple's daughters - Cecile (24), plus her husband and son, Albion (2), and Hermione (21) along with her partner - all live together.
"Having my family around me is incredible. I know only too well how fortunate I am to have time as a father with my children and my wonderful grandson - time my father was cruelly denied. Our home set-up is like The Little House On The Prairie and works so well. I think you simply have to enjoy and appreciate what you have," says Llewelyn-Bowen. "So often we forget to do that, but I know how important that is."
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is the official celebrity ambassador for the 2019 Make Blood Cancer Visible campaign. Visit makebloodcancervisible.co.uk
Losing his father as a child had a massive impact on Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. He
tells Gabrielle Fagan how he's determined that the lessons he learned won't be in vain