Carry on up the Mendips

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 20Mar2004

James Trollope meets an agent provocateur who adds a dash of sauce to po-faced particulars.

Julian Bending is an estate agent provocateur. Around Somerset, his saucy property ads cause shock and amusement in equal measure. In Julian's world, flats are often "shagpads", houses can be "rugged in a sweaty kind of way" and his idea of a good location might well be "below the great heaving bosom of the Mendip Hills".

Four years ago, Julian opened his agency in Glastonbury High Street, a few doors up from a store called the Psychic Piglet, and opposite the Speaking Tree bookshop. "It's a transformational kind of place," he explains. It certainly seems to have changed him.

Before he set up on his own, he worked for agencies full of "public schoolboys who weren't bright enough to become lawyers". Once freed from those corporate chains, Julian adopted his own approach based, he says, on honesty and fun.

One of his first ads ran: "Wonderfully grubby house with three dark, damp bedrooms and a filthy back yard. Complete renovation required." He sold it in a week. "In my previous incarnation, I probably would have said it needed 'gentle refurbishment' and would 'suit a couple who like DIY'," says Julian. "I would have had a lot of dissatisfied customers, some of whom would have complained, rightly, about being shown a property that was only suitable for a builder."

But Julian's speciality is the risqué ad. Thus, a large house with adjoining converted barn set in the aforementioned Mendips becomes: "A monstrously double-cupped pair of beauties with one side larger than the other; but isn't that always the way?" The house has "a deep attractive character that seems incapable of duplicity or any of the other, subtler, vices", while the barn is "awash with old school sock atmosphere". As for the village, "it's a real cheese and cider sort of place but the inhabitants don't all look the same."

The owner of the £450,000 property, Derek Paget, says he finds Julian's descriptions "quite amusing" and thinks his was a "fairly mild" example. "There was some confusion because one of the people looking around the house commented about the advert before we had seen it and I think there was a bit of unrest in the village. I'm not really sure whether his approach helps or hinders," he says.

Julian is convinced that it helps. "Once people realise where we are coming from, they feel they've already got a relationship with us. People come into the office laughing and you don't get that barrier you usually get with estate agents."

He certainly seems to have touched a nerve with some of the other agents in town. "Unequivocally, no comment," was one hissed reaction to an enquiry about Julian's methods. Perhaps his success has rubbed them up the wrong way. Julian, who calls his agency Ralph Bending, after his grandfather, has a £1 million turnover and a staff of eight, all women. "I'm a cock among the hens," he crows.

One of the "hens", his wife Jane, says she is sometimes "a bit embarrassed" by the more "in-your-face" ads. "Occasionally, I tell Jules that he can't say something, but he just laughs and says 'all the punters will love it'. He builds up a very descriptive picture but, personally, I like it when he is more subtle."

Perhaps Jane has in mind something like this: "On the top of the hill where the red wind blows and thoughts turn to the special offers at Lidl . . ."

That was Julian's description of a downmarket, two-bedroom semi owned by Nicci King.

"The point was that the house was on a council estate and, rightly or wrongly, you just assume that people from council estates shop at Lidl."

Wrongly Julian, as it turns out. "I only ever shop at Safeway and Tesco," said Nicci. "I'm not offended, because the house was sold within a few days for £127,000. He gets results because of the way he does it. People know what he's like, they talk about his ads and they think he's quite funny."

But sometimes people do complain - in particular, some readers of Fosse Way Magazine, where Julian has been advertising for the past two years.

When the editor wanted him to tone down one of his more graphic references, Julian refused and cancelled his advertising. "He's sometimes incredibly funny," says Fanny Charles, the editor, "but he can be a bit juvenile. We never minded the double entendres although we did get a bit fed up with all the farting jokes. Recently we just had a problem with one or two words; we just wanted him to tone it down a little."

Julian refused and is now back advertising with Mid Somerset Newspapers, with whom he fell out two years earlier in similar fashion. Jenny Brown, the advertising executive, seems delighted to have him back. "This is a family newspaper. I am sure he will understand that he can't put things in that are offensive," she says, somewhat optimistically.

Despite his quarrels with the local press, Julian has never fallen foul of local trading standards officers who enforce the Property Misdescriptions Act. More traditional property "particulars" complement his ads, which avoid making false claims. If anything, he tends to accentuate the negative: "Grim conversion, suit 1970s devotee with collection of Yes records." Or: "Only Sky TV needed to complete the picture of suburban bliss", or: "I don't believe it - we've been asked to sell Victor Meldrew's house!" In true Meldrew style, the owner of the last property was quickly on the phone. "He said he wasn't sure about it being described in those terms," said Julian, "but when we sold it two weeks later he was more than happy."

Julian counts among his inspirations Viz magazine, Jeremy Clarkson, the two Ronnies and the famous London estate agent, Roy Brooks. " He's a bit of a hero to me, the best copywriter never to have worked in advertising."

Comparing the two, Mr Brooks was the more urbane. You can almost imagine Bending doing a Brooks: "Filthy house, fashionable Chelsea, preserved as of architectural interest, God knows why." You can't quite imagine Brooks doing a Bending: "Not too noisy, despite work going on by hairy-arsed builders. Suit desperate divorcee or gay young man."

Surrounded by his women, Julian says he is now utterly bored by the process of selling and concentrates on meeting new clients and composing his ads.

"Ideally, I'd like to give it up and write." Any offers?