He only ever aspired to be a gardener, so how did Alan Titchmarsh, the lad from Ilkley become both television royalty and a best-selling author?

Since he began working aged 15, Alan Titchmarsh has—in no particular order—presented the Chelsea Flower Show for three decades, hosted his own chat show for eight years, headlined the most popular gardening show ever, presented a radio slot that routinely draws in millions of listeners, written nine best-selling novels and churned out countless gardening books and columns. Oh, and he’s also made over Nelson Mandela’s garden.

It’s a staggering list of achievements for anyone—let alone a man who doesn’t consider himself ambitious.

“When I was watering plants in the Parks department, did I ever think, Wouldn’t it be nice to present the Last Night of the Proms on the BBC?” he chuckles. “It was so far beyond my compass, it would have been an absurd dream to imagine.”

Alan Titchmarsh
Alan in 1985. He's been on our screens "most weeks" since then

Indeed, this Yorkshireman’s story certainly didn’t begin with TV prime-time slots and national-treasure status. Born to a plumber father and a textile-mill-worker mother, he left school before his 16th birthday to work as an apprentice gardener with Ilkley Council. 

“At that stage, I was just happy to be growing things and working with plants,” he says. “My boss in the Parks department said I should do my apprenticeship there, then go to college for a year, then go to Kew or Edinburgh or Wisley for three years for a diploma. Then I was to go to something called the Institute of Park and Recreation Administration for a year, eventually to become a park superintendent. That prospect didn’t particularly excite me.”

Alan got as far as Kew in this career plan and realised he needed more stimulation. He moved into journalism, raising his profile as a gardening expert—which led to his first TV gig in 1979.

“My life has been a series of observed opportunities and calculated risks. That’s the only way I can look at it,” he muses. “It’s being observant enough to spot things that come out of left field. And fool-hardy enough to have a go.”

 

 

"I had two choices: either get used to it and knuckle down, or get out now"

 

 

This foolhardiness has certainly paid dividends. Since 1980, Alan has been on British TV every single year (“and most weeks too,” he adds), appearing on Pebble Mill, Gardeners’ World, Ground Force and even The Alan Titchmarsh Show, among myriad others. It’s a career of which many can only dream—a fact that hasn’t passed Alan by. 

“If I’d set out when I was younger to be an actor or a chat-show host or a TV presenter, how the dickens would I have found my way into it? It would have been impossible. So I came in via the back door as a gardener. I’m enormously grateful for any and every opportunity I’ve had.” 

He pauses. “It probably sounds very twee to say things like that, but I’m a realist—nobody owes me a living.”

Ground Force team
The Ground Force team—Charlie Dimmock, Alan and Tommy Walsh pictured in 2000

If not ambition, then, what exactly has driven him to such an eminent (and lucrative) position?

“I’m quite good at getting along with folk,” he says simply. “We all encounter people who are a bit odd, but, generally speaking, the human race isn’t a bad lot. I enjoy conversation and I’m genuinely interested in people.

“I’ve never been driven by money—it’s been very nice when it’s been there, I’m not knocking that—but I’m driven by stimulation.”

Alan, for all his mild manners, is quite a divisive figure. Some find his particular brand of pleasantry charming, while others don’t quite buy into it.

“Some people don’t take what they see as being what is. They think it’s a front,” he sighs. “When people don’t allow for the fact that you’re allowed to be like you and they’re allowed to be like them—a strange sort of prejudiced intolerance—that’s dispiriting. You just think, 'Why am I bothering?'”

Alan Titchmarsh 2016
Hard at work on Gardener's World

Although he’d already been on TV for 17 years by 1997, when Ground Force aired to 12 million viewers, he got a bit of a shock.

“Suddenly everybody in the street knew who I was. I remember coming home and thinking, I’m not sure if I like this. But I had two choices: either get used to it and knuckle down, or get out now. I loved doing the job, so I got used to coping with it. I’m not one of those people who’ll go to the opening of an envelope for the sake of it. Fame is a by-product of what I do—not a goal in itself.” 

He concedes that he’s fundamentally a “sensitive” soul, but he’s learned to maintain perspective. “I don’t take myself too seriously. I remember Margot Fonteyn’s dictum, which I’ve stuck to most of my life: to take your job seriously is imperative, to take yourself seriously is a disaster. It’s a good rule to remember. Everybody’s special, but you’re not that special. I look at the behaviour of other people in the business—no names mentioned—and think, 'Oh, come on, you want a good smack. Stop it.'”

He cites his Northern upbringing and the old adage “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all” as informing his own attitude to others. “But life isn’t like that. People like to have a pop. So you grit your teeth and hope that tomorrow it’s fish-and-chip paper.”

On the flipside, of course, are the people who adore Alan and his warm familiarity. In fact, there’s a rumour that his figure in Madame Tussauds has to be cleaned twice a week to wipe away all the lipstick marks. “It makes me smile and makes my wife raise her eyebrows,” he laughs. “It’s very flattering, but you can’t take it too seriously.”

 

Read the full interview in the September edition of Reader's Digest

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