There’s a life-size wax model of Alan Titchmarsh at Madame Tussauds in London. Legend has it that its face has to be cleaned twice a week because of the many lipstick imprints on it. Can this really be true?
The man himself chuckles. “Well, that used to be so, I’m told, but I don’t know if I still have the pulling power. And I’m reluctant to ask, in case I’ve gone off.”
It doesn’t seem very likely. At 70, the nation’s favourite gardener is still working like a demon. It’s no longer true but we used to have to nominate one word on our passport to describe our occupation. Gardener, broadcaster, poet, novelist, author, singer: which would Alan choose?
“Oh, gardener,” he says, and he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s what I was trained for. Gardening was what I was put on the earth to do. The other things are what I’ve been allowed to do.”
You couldn’t accuse him of shying away from new challenges. “I’ve always enjoyed being stimulated and I don’t mind taking the odd risk.” But he does know his likes and limitations. “I wouldn’t ever do reality TV, for instance, because that’s not what I’m
about. Most of what I do involves other people and I like that…But I’m also keen on writing which is necessarily a solitary pursuit. I write in silence in the barn just across from my house in Hampshire and it’s a counterpoint to everything else I do. I couldn’t do one without the other.”
His latest work of fiction, The Scarlet Nightingale, was recently published in paperback and tells the story of a wartime love affair. It involved a woman called Rosamund Hawksmoor, who appeared in his previous novel, Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, and the only time he’s returned to an existing character.
“GARDENING WAS WHAT I WAS PUT ON THE EARTH TO DO. THE OTHER THINGS ARE WHAT I’VE BEEN ALLOWED TO DO”
It’s also the first time he’s created a female protagonist. Did he test the finished work on Alison, his wife of 44 years? “Yes, she sees everything first. It’s a rather unnerving experience. She sits reading whatever it is in total silence and then at the end, she’ll say ‘It’s fine’. That’s all I’ll get.”
This winter, he must tackle novel Number 12. What’s it going to be about? “Haven’t a clue. And I’ve got to deliver in March. Ideas come to me out of the blue – when I’m deadheading the roses or whatever. I’m the sort of writer who lets his characters take him on a journey. I never plot. If I ever do, I’ve strayed to somewhere else completely by Chapter 3. The one thing I do know before I start is the location and that’s always somewhere with which I’m familiar, whether in Britain or overseas.”
In March, he’ll publish Marigolds, Myrtle and Moles, a book inspired by the garden and Nature itself. From self-penned poems on the peony, the snowdrop and the sweet pea to lighthearted verse on Emily the Gardener and the Garden Design Course, this promises to be a heartfelt and entertaining celebration of Alan’s favourite space.
He was just 10 when he realised he had an aptitude for gardening although it was only years later that his plumber father revealed that his own father and grandfather before him had both been professional gardeners.
Born and brought up near Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire, his home life with his younger sister and a mother who worked in a textile mill was far from privileged. “But we were loved and my sister and I each had a new pair of Clark’s shoes every year” he recalls.
A small child, school was a much less enjoyable experience. “I was bullied” he says, bluntly, “because I was the runt of the class. I was also rather a sensitive plant, always taking things to heart.” But he was good with words and used them as wittily as he knew how to deflect his detractors.
It was only when he left school and signed on for a City and Guilds course that he came into his own. At 17, he realised belatedly that he had a good academic brain while shooting up eight inches to a final height of five foot nine in a single year. He hasn’t looked back since.
He turned 70 in May. How did he react? “Gleefully. I never really expected to get there. It seemed such a ridiculously old age when I was younger. Now it’s happened, I’m attempting to demonstrate an air of contentment as opposed to smugness. But if it were to end tomorrow, I couldn’t possibly complain. I’ve been so lucky with my wife and daughters and grandchildren, with my friends, some of whom go back 50 years.”
How did he celebrate? “Well, I thought it was going to be a family lunch organised by my wife at Kew Gardens. When I arrived, there were 120 people waiting for me. It was quite emotional.”
Did it bring a tear to his eye? “Oh yes, the older I get, the more I cry at the drop of a hat. But then it’s good to let out your feelings, isn’t it? I’m addicted to BBC2’s The Repair Shop, for example, for its simplicity and its problem-solving. It always makes me cry.”
This extends to his own work. “My TV series, Love Your Garden, can get pretty emotional because you’re helping to turn round people’s lives. When you’re dealing with a 32-yearold man, the father of two-year-old twins, and he’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, of course emotions are going to be near the surface.”
After a prolonged spell, meanwhile, presenting his own Radio 2 show, Alan has been on Classic FM for seven years now each Saturday morning from 7am to 10am. “My ambition is simple: I just want to give listeners a good start to the day. In fact, it’s my start to every day and puts me in far better fettle than listening to politicians bickering about Brexit.”
He has a major input, along with his producer, into the music selection played which changes as the year unfolds. “We don’t do anything Christmas-y until the beginning of December. It’s very carefully phased in to stop people getting fed up with it before the big day arrives.”
In the New Year, he’s embarking on an ‘experimental’ tour, Trowel and Error, with three dates up north – Lancaster on January 7 followed by Darlington and Ilkley.
He will present, he hopes, “an evening of good humour, merriment and stories about everyone from Mandela to marigolds”.
And so the ubiquitous Mr Titchmarsh continues to pop out of a succession of different holes. All this hard work was rewarded with the MBE in 2000. What was his reaction?
“Disbelief, really. But, like anyone else would be, it was lovely to be given a pat on the head. The citation read: ‘For services to horticulture and broadcasting.’ I was pleased about that.”
He was lucky enough to be invested by the Queen. ‘In the January before the June when I went to Buckingham Palace to pick up my award, I was addressing the WI in Sandringham at their AGM and the Queen was in the audience.
“At the investiture, she asked me if I was busy. So I explained about Ground Force and Gardeners’ World and what have you. Then she shook my hand and said: ‘Well, you give a lot of ladies a lot of pleasure.’ Not the type of remark you’re going to forget in a hurry.”
For more tour information visit alantitchmarsh.co.uk