Kirstie Allsopp: 'Covid has definitely revealed a mealy-mouthed gutlessness in people'

·20-min read
Best known for her cosy property shows, Allsopp has become one of Britain’s most outspoken celebrities during the pandemic - Rebecca Miller/ Contour by Getty Images
Best known for her cosy property shows, Allsopp has become one of Britain’s most outspoken celebrities during the pandemic - Rebecca Miller/ Contour by Getty Images

I am on the way to meet Kirstie Allsopp at her home in west London to talk about her Channel 4 show Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, when my phone rings.

‘Oh God, I am so sorry, I’m not at the house.’ It takes me a second to realise that it’s the woman herself. The voice is scratchier, less crystalline than the one you hear on TV. ‘I’ve got Covid,’ she rasps, ‘the brain fog is awful. I’m so sorry, I forgot you were coming. I’m at the house in Devon. Quarantine.’

She is clearly mortified and texts me later to apologise for possibly the ninth time. ‘Poor form!’ she castigates herself. It’s such a splendidly Allsoppian thing to say.

Outside of a Noël Coward revival in the West End, there are tragically few Britons in 2021 who care about ‘poor form’, or its opposite, which basically means good manners and doing the decent thing. Most celebrities would have got their agent to break the news that the interview was off. Kirstie Allsopp is not one of them.

Actually, I’m not too disappointed because, in between profuse apologies down the phone, she chatters away with jaw-dropping candour about everything from the health of the Queen (‘Allison, aren’t you worrying about her every single day? I am’) to recent ructions within the Royal family.

Prince Harry and Meghan, I deduce, are most definitely guilty of poor form. ‘Everyone knew he [Prince Philip] was dying in January,’ Allsopp says, ‘but they went ahead and did the Oprah interview anyway. Just appalling.’

By ‘everyone’, Allsopp means the aristocratic circles into which she was born. The Duchess of Cornwall was a childhood friend of her late mother, Lady Fiona Hindlip, and Camilla is godmother to Kirstie’s brother Henry, an art dealer.

The four Allsopp siblings (Kirstie is the eldest and took care of the young ones when their mother was ill with breast cancer in her 40s) are entitled to style themselves The Honourable by virtue of the peerage of their father, Charles, the 6th Baron Hindlip.

One doesn’t talk about ‘connections’ (poor form!), but Allsopp is clearly incensed that Meghan told Oprah it was Kate who made her cry, backing up that claim by pointing to the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge brought Meghan flowers to apologise.

Poor form: Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were largely criticised for the timing of their viral Oprah interview - Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese
Poor form: Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were largely criticised for the timing of their viral Oprah interview - Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese

‘Kate never ever loses her temper, but she found out Meghan was being rude to staff at Kensington Palace and she was angry with her. Then, Kate burst into tears because she’d lost control and she did take Meghan flowers to try and patch things up.’

Allsopp’s gossip has impeccable sources. Besides, like George Washington, she seems incapable of telling a lie, even when a fib would spare her a lot of grief. I reckon you wouldn’t go far wrong trusting her version of events or, at least, believing that hers is a pretty faithful account of how the Sussexes’ conduct is viewed by senior royals.

At a time when so many stars watch their words like paranoid hawks to avoid cancelling themselves, Allsopp’s cheery, forthright manner feels like a gurgling fountain of frankness. It’s so refreshing, I can’t help smiling at her candour. A refusal to deliver the approved platitudes gets her into deep water on social media.

Pronouncements on everything from washing machines in the kitchen (‘disgusting’) to women leaving it too late to have babies (‘We are being lied to – you have a 10 per cent chance of conceiving over 40’) have led to critical headlines and pile-ons from the Twitter pitchforkers.

An admission that she smashed her youngest child’s iPad (she has two sons, Bay, 15, and Oscar, 13, and two stepsons in their 20s with her partner, Ben Anderson, a property developer), after the boys broke her rules about screen time, had parents like me cheering. It also led to an angry backlash with Allsopp accused of being a ‘posh cow’ with ‘more money than sense’.

I am impressed by how outspoken she has been during the pandemic, boldly challenging restrictions, such as the Government’s one-hour limit on exercise at the height of the crisis – ‘Madness!’ She called the plan to vaccinate children over 12 in the UK, while so many vulnerable people around the world were at greater risk of Covid and still waiting for their first jabs, ‘the pinnacle of Western overconsumption’. Whatever your view of her, she does not lack courage.

It is a week after our aborted interview, when Allsopp has completed quarantine, that we finally meet in person. As a massive fan of Location, Location, Location, Channel 4’s property-hunting show, which Allsopp has presented with Phil Spencer for an astonishing 21 years, I am curious (OK, madly nosey and embarrassingly excited) to see the des res occupied by the Queen of Houses herself.

Walking along a street of wedding-cake mansions in Holland Park, I almost miss Allsopp’s house, which turns out to be a couple of flats knocked together in a ’60s brick block. It looks like a yellowing tooth in a row of sparkling veneers. None of that famous ‘kerb appeal’ that Phil and ‘Kirstles’ urge on their viewers.

Kirstie Allsopp with on-screen partner Phil Spencer - Couresty of Channel 4
Kirstie Allsopp with on-screen partner Phil Spencer - Couresty of Channel 4

Only when you go inside does the canniness of the owners’ purchase become apparent. All is light, comfort and colour. Huge windows at the back overlook the communal garden made famous by the film Notting Hill (Richard Curtis is a neighbour).

Plumptious velvet sofas the size of baby elephants (all but the red, stripy one I’m sitting on are second-hand, Allsopp insists, ‘Ben is a big eBayer’) sit on kilim rugs. There is none of that sterile good taste that turns rich people’s dwellings into mausoleums.

The eclectic mix of upcycled antiques and modern pieces are instantly recognisable as the taste of the presenter of Kirstie & Phil’s Love It or List It, whose gale-force enthusiasm (‘I’m much bossier on telly than I am at home!’) chivvies couples to brighten up their tired abodes.

Allsopp turned 50 in August, but she looks 10 years younger. With her porcelain complexion and thick dark hair she could have walked out of a John Singer Sargent portrait of an Edwardian aristocrat. Like Nigella, she is slighter in person than on screen, but I’m glad to see she’s wearing one of her trademark Kirstie frocks (a green floral Me+Em dress with velvet trim).

She was one of those children who wasn’t much good at being young. Dyslexic, she couldn’t settle at school, dreaded exams and was doomed never to be one of the cool crowd, sporting a velvet Alice band, the Sloane’s daytime tiara, while the other girls were in jeans. (Like the Queen, you simply cannot imagine Kirstie Allsopp in jeans.) Nevertheless, ‘I’m not one of those people who is going to pretend that getting older is fun,’ she says. ‘I don’t like aching.’

Despite the lingering effects of the virus – ‘I still can’t smell that candle!’ – she is remarkably chipper. ‘I’d rather not have had Covid, but it’s interesting to have had it. It’s the brain fog that I find so weird. It’s slightly sinister, this virus, I don’t remember anything else having all these symptoms.’

Why does she think so few public figures have spoken out about lockdown as she did? ‘It’s really bizarre,’ she says. ‘The number of people there has not been a squeak from. All those celebs’ – who, unlike her, have not been entirely honest – ‘posting pictures on Instagram of their holidays in Cornwall, as if that was the only place that they went. Come off it. You didn’t just go to Cornwall, did you? You went abroad!’

Covid, she thinks, ‘has definitely revealed a mealy-mouthed gutlessness in people. I’m not expecting everyone to stick their head above the parapet, but there are famous people with kids in school who could have said something. There’s no getting away from the really dreadful effect all this has had on the mental health of young people and the isolation impact on the elderly.

Obviously, we didn’t know about this disease and it was really important for us to find ways to protect people. Since we’ve had a vaccine, I think every single one of those impacts needed to be looked at in the round and calculations made about the damage they cause.’

She admits she was shocked by ‘the curtain-twitching element’ during lockdown, as people harshly judged the behaviour of others. ‘You never know what goes on in someone else’s home. There was a huge increase in domestic abuse. Before you accuse someone else of being selfish you have to be very careful. I know loads of immensely law-abiding people who were driven to making really difficult choices.’

Allsopp got a taste of that punitive attitude herself. When Anderson had Covid, the family was staying at what she insists is their primary home in Devon. She still recoils at the memory of the cruelty. ‘On social media, people tweeted things like, “Are you dead yet? You brought your vile, infected family to Devon?”’

During lockdown, Allsopp was actually filming Channel 4’s Keep Crafting and Carry On in the West Country to give housebound families some activities to do together.

‘Everyone who was involved in the production had to isolate, then drive to Devon by themselves. I thought to myself, “There are people who know that we were allowed to do that, but if you wanted to see a member of your family who was dying it wasn’t allowed.”’ She says if her mother had been on the verge of death during the past year, she would have gone to her ‘absolutely without question’.

What a difference if the Government had sought advice from the practical, humane, truth-telling Kirstie Allsopp instead of the communist shroud-wavers at Sage.

‘One of the things I really struggled with,’ she continues, ‘is the idiocy of this hour of exercise. They knew early on that your chances of catching Covid in the fresh air were really low and they know about fresh air and exercise and the importance for mental and physical health.

Because of the nature of my job, I’ve seen where people live, I know the small flats and small houses that families live in and I was amazed by the way people who had large gardens or lived in rolling countryside were able to say, “Oh, no, I don’t think someone should be allowed to get in the car to go for exercise.” I just thought to myself, “You have NO idea, you have absolutely no idea.”’

Allsopp presenting Channel 4’s Keep Crafting and Carry On; a show that aimed to give families activities to do together - Television Stills/ Channel 4
Allsopp presenting Channel 4’s Keep Crafting and Carry On; a show that aimed to give families activities to do together - Television Stills/ Channel 4

Critics who accuse Allsopp of being an out-of-touch Lady Muck don’t appreciate quite how much knowledge she has built up over two decades working in every corner of the UK. If there were even a whiff of condescension when The Honourable Kirstie Mary Allsopp walks into a two-up, two-down in Swindon or Bolton, Location, Location, Location would be a disaster.

The show’s enduring popularity is a testament to the seriousness and deep kindness with which Allsopp and Spencer discharge their responsibilities. Unlike other reality shows, they don’t exploit participants only to spit them out.

‘We are obsessed with doing the best for people,’ she says. It shows. She clearly adores her co-host (‘Phil is a devoted husband, devoted dad, devoted son, he has these two spaniels he lives for. He just is a really solid person’). Both presenters are ambivalent about the fame that their property expertise has brought them.

‘To be honest,’ she shakes her head and laughs, ‘there’s a bit of us that thinks being on the telly is a bit showy-off. Not really a suitable job, not something to be wildly proud of, one day we’ll get a proper one.’ It is that grounded, unvain attitude that has built their adoring fan base.

I’m sure that Allsopp’s fierce reaction to lockdown sprang from painful personal experience. It would, she says, have been incredibly hard for her mother, who was 66 when she died after 25 years of cancer.

‘Mum’s care was palliative for the last nine years of her life and I think a lot of that medical care would have dropped away, which would have been horrid. I’m not one of those people who say that 82 is a good innings. I wouldn’t want anyone to be without those years, ever. But, at the same time, I think we need to really analyse who benefits and who loses out. There are people who say, “Every life matters.” That’s bollocks! If every life mattered we’d have cured breast cancer by now.’

Like the Duchess of Cambridge, Allsopp is calm and even-tempered, so I am taken aback by the sudden vehemence in her voice. ‘One of the things that horrifies me is it turns out we had all this money to focus on a disease,’ she almost shouts. ‘We could have cured cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, but, when the money was needed for Covid, suddenly it was there! And that is quite a difficult thing to get your head around. When it was politically expedient to cure something, it was possible.’

Breast cancer runs in the family. Her grandmother, her mother and a cousin all died of it. Both Kirstie’s sisters have taken the decision to have a mastectomy. She says she ruled it out for herself.

‘It’s really difficult, but I have this pathological thing about not lying, Allison, so I’m going to tell you this. They’ve never found our family gene and increasingly there’s recognition that character types are prone to cancer. My mother was a real worrier, my cousin was a real worrier. I remain not entirely convinced that we have a breast-cancer gene. It might be an anxiety gene. But it’s still early days for the issues around cancer and anxiety and people get really upset if you talk about it.’

Allsopp (far right) with her parents and sisters in 1990 - Getty Images
Allsopp (far right) with her parents and sisters in 1990 - Getty Images

At this point we are interrupted by Kirstie’s assistant, Beth, bringing Earl Grey and biscuits. Heather, the nanny, is next door in the kitchen, making supper for the boys. One of the many things Allsopp refuses to dissemble about are the staff who make it possible for her to ‘have it all’.

She disapproves of successful females who pretend they do everything themselves, considering it bad for the morale of women who don’t have help and think they’re failures because they’re struggling.

As I reach for my tea, a creature jumps into my lap. ‘Very smelly, very scruffy and very spoilt’ is how she describes Dandy, an elderly Border terrier. ‘I am in love with her,’ Allsopp says, ‘but she is in love with Ben.’ The puppy ‘instantly scanned the family and worked out who was in charge and tied her colours to that mast’.

Is Anderson really the boss at home? ‘Oh, yes, he’s a much stronger character than I am. It really suits me because I’m in charge at work. It’s a very dangerous job, my job. There’s this phrase they use in TV, “the talent”, so you can get very spoilt. I’ve always been really aware of it. Because what happens when it stops? Which it will do. I don’t ever want to walk out my front door and trip over myself because there’s no car waiting.’

It surprises people that she and Anderson aren’t married. ‘I definitely believe if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. When I met Ben, he was adamant he would never marry again. He’d been divorced and he didn’t like the process. He was just as adamant that he wanted more children and he’s a devoted father. When he said, “Shall we try for a family?” it was the equivalent of a proposal from him, so I settled with that.’ She grins. ‘It’s the only unconventional thing about me.’

It’s clear she totally adores being a mother. She is already in mourning for her sons’ childhood. ‘People say how hard small children are, but what they don’t say is how quickly they grow up and how much you miss those small people.’ She refuses to apologise for banging on about the need for women to get pregnant before it’s too late.

'Of course, young women are absolutely fed up with being told about their fertility. But I would say that I was ignorant,' says Allsopp, who was nearly 38 when her son Oscar was born - Clara Molden
'Of course, young women are absolutely fed up with being told about their fertility. But I would say that I was ignorant,' says Allsopp, who was nearly 38 when her son Oscar was born - Clara Molden

‘If you say there is ignorance about this, you are shouted down. “Rubbish!” they say. Of course, young women are absolutely fed up with being told about their fertility. But I would say that I was ignorant. Certainly, I should have started trying within a year of my second child being born if I wanted to have another one, and I didn’t. I waited two years.’

It sounds old-fashioned, but she insists this is a feminist issue. ‘Billions of pounds are being made with things like egg freezing and IVF. There is an entire industry that wants you to believe that it has solved the problem of ageing and fertility. It hasn’t, it’s just not true.’

Allsopp was 37, nearly 38, when Oscar was born. ‘Then it never happened again. Just never happened…’ she trails off. Would she like to have had more? ‘God, I’d have had 10!’ she shrieks.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that being so maternal is a huge part of her success. You see it in the way she clucks fondly at all her chicks in the TV shows. You glimpse it when she lights up when talking about the scandalously poor houses being thrown up in this country and the need to create high-quality flexible housing for younger and older generations.

‘Every Tesco should be underground and above it should be two storeys of two- and three-bedroom flats for families. The car park will be turned into a communal playing area with a bowling green.’ She would mother everyone, and upcycle all our lives, if she could.

Would she consider going into politics? ‘At the moment?’ She pulls a disgusted face. ‘I could never be partisan. I’m not a tribal person. Toeing the line would be beyond me. I just couldn’t. I was opposed to closing schools [during the pandemic] – I couldn’t shut up about that.’

She softens her stance a little when she mentions the late Sir David Amess. ‘He was a brilliant constituency MP. There’s a lot of honour in being that kind of MP. Maybe, at some stage in my life, that might be something I would consider... You know, to do good.’

‘Mum?’ A doe-eyed boy pops his head around the sitting-room door and Allsopp beams. ‘Oscy, come and say hello to Allison. We’re supposed to be talking about Christmas, but we’re not.’

Oh, God, Christmas! I forgot. As the presenter of Handmade Christmas – which sees Allsopp making everything from table decorations to homespun gifts – does she go to town herself over the festive season? ‘There’s a hell of a lot of anxiety around Christmas,’ she says, ‘I think women can be quite bad about that and we need to tone it down. I hope nothing in our show causes anxiety.’

She says Anderson would maintain ‘that I’m the one that gets in a tizz and the children wouldn’t care if I was more low-key, and I think probably there’s something in that’.

What’s her top Christmas tip? ‘Ah, well, in advance, send out an email to everyone who’s coming saying, “Nobody loves a Christmas martyr. So, tell me what you like to do, so that can be your contribution.”

If you are a brilliant wrapper, come half a day early and we’ll instal you in the study and you can get stuck in. If you want to bring a Christmas cake, fantastic. If you want home-made brandy butter and cranberry sauce, then make them, otherwise it’s coming out of a jar.

‘There’s a hell of a lot of anxiety around Christmas,' admits Allsopp, presenter of Kirstie's Handmade Christmas - Television Stills
‘There’s a hell of a lot of anxiety around Christmas,' admits Allsopp, presenter of Kirstie's Handmade Christmas - Television Stills

And the number one thing is to move the meal to teatime and not have the pressure of the lunch. It’s just too early. Everyone’s still padding about. Maybe a bit of scrambled egg and smoked salmon, maybe a glass of Champagne. It’s so much nicer. You don’t want three meals on Christmas Day. Then you’re actually really hungry for Christmas supper at 5.30, then collapse in a heap.’

It is now that Kirstie breaks some startling news. She will not, like most of us, be slaving over a KellyBronze, turkey fat spattering her finest floral frock, and getting progressively more sozzled waiting for the parboiled parsnips to crisp up. ‘We are almost invariably abroad at Christmas now,’ she says.

What? Does the queen of home-made decs feel fraudulent not doing Christmas in the bleak midwinter at home? She does not. After slaving away for 10 daytime episodes with toilet-roll tubes and tinsel, Kirstie likes to get away. ‘It’s not that I’m over Christmas,’ she says hastily.

She prefers to spend quite a bit of the school holidays out of the UK, where she isn’t recognised. The family go to the same sunny place every year and they have a tree and decorations. Forget turkey, Kirstie will be making lobster.

How very Allsopp not to feel she has to keep quiet about her exotic Christmas plans. That would be poor form. Maybe it’s a bit of noblesse oblige, maybe it’s the maternal instinct she had to develop as a child when her own mother was ill; whatever it is, the woman is an undoubted force for good in the land.

She drives me to the Tube station, such a kind gesture when she is still wiped from the virus and has not stopped talking for two and a half hours. If this is Kirstie with brain fog, just imagine what she’s like when she’s firing on all cylinders.

Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas starts on 13 December at 5pm; Love It or List It returns on 15 December at 8pm, both Channel 4