'Marrying into the Johnsons is like adopting a litter of very noisy puppies who jump up a lot'
Boris’s brother-in-law Ivo Dawnay, married to Rachel, explains why he is roughing up the National Trust
Day 8032 in the Dawnay-Johnson house. Rachel Johnson is upstairs sorting through old books. Her husband Ivo Dawnay is sitting in his study, looking out of the window. The family cleaner Mumtaz is downstairs pottering about in their kitchen. Of the other housemates, Oliver, their 16-year-old son, was evicted on Tuesday, sent back to boarding school, Ludo, 20, has already left for university, and Charlotte, 19, is packing bags, ready to be next out. Coco the dog is snoozing at her master’s feet. Dawnay is the London director of the National Trust, which, along with Channel 5 and Endemol, is opening up the Big Brother house for a weekend at the end of September. Not exactly one of the grand historic houses, the staple NT members may sniff. But, like the Johnson clan, Dawnay likes to go against the grain. “The Trust is there to promote and preserve places of historic interest and national beauty — not necessarily historic beauty,” he says. “The Big Brother house has real sociological and historical importance. It was about Britain looking at itself.”
One thing even Celebrity Big Brother, which is currently showing on Channel 5, has yet to see is that British staple — a Johnson on the show. Then again, the Johnson family, into which Dawnay married two decades ago, has been under its own Big Brother spotlight for the past decade.
Father Stanley Johnson made waves as an MEP, writer and environmentalist. Mayor Boris was the first big star of the family. Little brother Jo Johnson is now on David Cameron’s policy board, and Leo Johnson is making a name for himself in business and sustainability.
Partners don’t escape, either. Though Dawnay’s day job is at the National Trust, he also moonlights in Rachel’s writings, now to be found in the Mail on Sunday. “There’s hardly an aspect [of my life] which hasn’t already been covered in depth by her forensic journalism,” he says. “I have kind of got used to it. Sometimes it’s been a little bit difficult. I just realised in this age of surveillance the first surveiller may be your conjugal partner.”
He and Rachel are outwardly different. He’s pushing 61 (“the oldest person I know”), recognises the portrait of himself in her novel Notting Hell as the bumbling husband with soup down his tie, and laughs at his own jokes. “Fogeyish”, he describes himself as. He’s gently rounded, with purple spectacles and soft-Reebok trainers on his feet.
She, 48, is sharper, faster and a fitness fanatic. “She seems to play tennis four times a day,” Dawnay says. Her whole family has boundless energy. “Marrying into Johnsons is like adopting a litter of golden retriever puppies which are very noisy, who jump up a lot and whose wagging tails tend to sweep sensitive objects off tables.” Of their children it’s Oliver, very blond, who is “most definitely Johnsonian stock — the others are slightly more sophisticated”.
But Rachel and Ivo have one strong thing in common — irreverence. When she took over The Lady, articles on growing cucumbers made way for Joan Collins, Tracey Emin and questions on the decorum of sleeping with the nanny. The family-owned magazine had wanted something edgier, even if the older readers did not.
The same goes for her husband and the National Trust. Out in the countryside the ageing membership, some of whom may be readers of The Lady too, are used to guided tours of grand houses. But Dawnay has made London the Petri dish for experimentation. There’s been a singles night in Ham House and an app called Soho Stories that gives the post-war sex, drugs and rock’n’roll history of the area through your mobile as you walk around. Alan Bennett complained about it; Dawnay, relishing the criticism, called the playwright “extraordinarily elitist”.
The Big Brother open house brochure, written by Dawnay, is a send-up of starchy guides. The diary room chair is “the world’s plushest confessional which must make the camper members of the Vatican Curia green with envy” and the staircase likened to Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone with the Wind.
Many National Trust houses — Cliveden, Sissinghurst — were built as displays of success. Dawnay, one suspects, likes the Big Brother house because it became interesting by accident, a TV sensation that, even after its peak, is still watched by two million people on the final night. Dame Helen Ghosh, who became director general of the National Trust six months ago, is supportive, he says. “I think she’s quite brave because opening the BB house might be a step too far for some DGs but she absolutely understands. She says her daughter would understand it, who is a young woman in her twenties.”
Other future projects he talks about have the same flavour. He hopes to work with the EMI vinyl factory in Hayes and has Gavin Turk turning an abandoned car-wreckers yard next to the Tudor Sutton House in Hackney into a cocktail bar and cinema of twisted metal.
Contrast this with the Dawnay-Johnson house’s planning objection to a fund manager, across the road who had applied to build a status-symbol “iceberg” basement extending under the pavement. The chain stores gradually appearing in Portobello Market also get thumbs down. “One of the reasons this part of London has gone from being down-and-out to super chic was that it had that character and unfortunately the wealth is eroding the character. It’s not beyond the wit of our political masters to maintain character without congealing everything — we just need the political will to do it.”
Speaking of political masters, how’s Boris? Dawnay steps elegantly round a direct comment, instead dipping back into the Nineties when he was Sunday Telegraph foreign editor and Boris Brussels correspondent.
“I used to get this copy from Boris,” he says. “Having come from the FT I was quite a European so I would say to Charles Moore, ‘look we cannot run this complete nonsense that Boris has written — we’ve got some credibility to maintain’. But Charles would say, ‘Oh but it reads so well — bung it in’.” It’s a pointed anecdote. While Dawnay has the airwaves, temporarily, he’d like to make a point: “If you want to be a real rebel now, the most effective and radical thing you can do is to be pro-Europe.”
He didn’t have to handle Boris’s copy for long as he was sent off to be Washington correspondent. Then came what he calls “the second Bay of Pigs disaster”. “I was fishing there on the day Monica Lewinsky came out of the closet in Washington. My editor was not aware that I had said I wanted to go on holiday and was not best pleased. I came back and wrote an article, the headline of which I wrote was ‘Al Gore, a safe pair of trousers’ which was actually quite good. But I was never forgiven.”
He moved onto lobbying, including writing the opening statement for the successful Sudanese civil war peace talks, and got pretty close to becoming Nato spokesman, before he ended up at the National Trust, first as communications director and then taking on the London division.
With all antics in their house, including the sitting-room ceiling falling in, faithfully reported by Rachel in the Mail on Sunday, Dawnay also likes to retreat. He paints — his mother-in-law Charlotte, first wife of Stanley, gave him lessons — and goes fishing, with Jeremy Paxman as one of his old fishing buddies.
“He saw the beard which I grew this summer and immediately went off and grew his own,” says Dawnay. “Mine was much more macho and edgy than his but I’d like to point out that I’ve cut mine off and I think it’s time he did the same.”
Facing a wall of media appearances about the Big Brother house, Dawnay doesn’t want to seem another greybeard. He says he’s suggested a new tagline for his institution. “The National Trust: not as boring as you think …” It has yet to be taken up.