Why Alan’s a man for all seasons

EMMA OUTTEN Is there anything that the green-fingered Alan Titchmarsh cannot turn his hands to? Emma Outten spoke to him before he presents his festive Fill My Stocking anthology at King’s Lynn Corn Exchange.

EMMA OUTTEN

As his interview with the EDP was only his second of the day, Alan Titchmarsh cheerfully announced: “I'm still fresh.” No doubt the gardening writer was feeling as fresh as a daisy.

The bestselling novelist and author of almost 40 gardening books - and an autobiography - has just turned his hand to writing a Christmas anthology, the rather saucily titled Fill My Stocking, and will be bringing an evening of festive poems, pantomimes, anecdotes and carols to King's Lynn Corn Exchange on Monday.

It will not be Alan's first time in Lynn as he is rather accustomed to after-dinner speaking in the town.


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As for the county at large, his love of the Norfolk Broads became rather apparent last year when he presented British Isles: A Natural History - the landmark television series for BBC1.

Alan, who enjoys nothing more than being out on the water in an old boat, said that although he had holidayed in Norfolk in the past, it had occurred to him that, prior to filming, he had never done the Broads. He then spent “the most wonderful days” there, and was amazed at the vastness of it.

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Alan has worked in television for more than 25 years, but it has also been a good 10 years since he first appeared on stage to show off as the raconteur and entertainer that he is.

“The great thing about stage is that it's very raw and very immediate,” said Alan. But although he said: “It's a great adrenalin rush”, he also admitted: “It's quite exhausting.”

Alan also admitted to feeling apprehensive before a show but then he believes he would be a fool not to, with however many hundreds of people just sitting there and waiting to be entertained.

His audiences, he said, “have got more and more mixed as time has gone on”. The hugely popular Ground Force, he believes, played a big part in broadening his fan base. “That certainly brought far younger people into gardening,” he said. “Gardening is for everybody,” he added. “It's not ageist.”

The idea for Fill My Stocking came about because Alan has enjoyed getting together with family and friends at Christmas time for years, to celebrate the season with a homespun entertainment of festive poems, pantomimes, and so forth. He lives in Hampshire with his wife, family and assorted livestock in an old farmhouse with a two-acre garden, and also on the Isle of Wight (one of his homes, he revealed, is a converted barn with an in-built theatre!)

The anthology is a collection of “two attaché cases full of stuff”, bound together for the first time and combining traditional favourites from much-loved writers, including Shakespeare, John Betjeman and Noel Coward, with Alan's own self-penned festive pieces.

The title, he said, was “suitably saucy without being offensive”. The same could be said of Alan, I mused, and he would be the first to agree, as he would also describe himself as “funny without being vulgar”.

As if there really is no end to his talents, the anthology is also illustrated by Alan's own watercolour vignettes. So not only is it handwritten (partially anyway), it is also handpainted.

So is there anything that Alan cannot turn his hand to? He would also describe himself as a “Jack of all trades/master of none”. And he continued in a similar self- deprecating manner by announcing that art was his only O level.

And yet here is a man who was made an MBE in the 2000 New Year Honours List, for services to horticulture and to broadcasting (left).

Alan was born and brought up on the edge of Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire and started growing things at the age of 10 in his parents' back garden. He left school at 15 and became an apprentice gardener in the local nursery, following this with full-time training at horticultural college and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

He eventually left and entered journalism where he first became a gardening-books editor and then deputy editor of Amateur Gardening magazine.

As he is a journalist in his own right, I asked Alan if he liked being the interviewee. If he had the choice, he replied, he would rather ask the questions than listen to the sound of his own voice droning on, as he put it. I commented that many people would quite happily listen to Alan droning on, ad infinitum (the book also has an audio narrated by Alan, by the way, if you are interested!)

Over the years, the versatile Alan has appeared regularly on radio and television, both as a gardening expert and as an interviewer and presenter, fronting such programmes as Points of View, Pebble Mill, Songs Of Praise, Titchmarsh's Travels, The BBC Proms and Ask the Family, and since 1983 has presented the BBC's annual coverage of The Chelsea Flower Show.

Most recently, Alan has lent his voice to A Year At Kew for the BBC, and is getting a certain satisfaction that the place that educated him now stands as proof of what became of him. “That's a nice compliment,” he said. “It's nice for me to give a bit back.”

As this man of all seasons is someone who has twice been named Gardening Writer of the Year and for four successive years was voted Television Personality of the Year by the Garden Writers' Guild, I wondered how he would like to be remembered.

“The most important thing for me is I'd been able to open people's eyes to things outdoors: gardening/nature,” said Alan, “to make them more aware…to introduce them to things that grow.”

Warming to his theme, he added: “My job is leading people out through the door and into the garden and the countryside.”

Alan is interested in the natural world, as the series British Isles: A Natural History showed. “You could argue that gardening is the most unnatural thing going!” he said, but he added: “It is plants!”

If he had to look back at highlights in his career, they would be very down to earth: “Getting into gardening,” he said. “Going to Kew was a highlight. I was thrilled to go there.”

Then he added: “Ground Force was a great mould-breaker. It introduced a lot of people to gardening.”

Then there was Gardeners' World: “A chance to take over from my old hero, Percy Thrower,” said Alan.

For seven years Alan was the main presenter of BBC2's Gardeners' World, which came from his own garden - Barleywood in Hampshire.

Then he took gardening on to BBC1 with Ground Force, which, at its peak, pulled in 12 million viewers. During the course of the series, Alan designed more than 60 gardens, including one for Nelson Mandela.

“I'm incredibly grateful,” he enthused, looking back.

Alan has never had a career plan, as such. Rather he has taken opportunities when they have cropped up.

“A lot of people are very single- minded,” he commented. Alan, on the other hand, has been broad-minded enough to branch out and write novels. But he had been of the opinion: “There is no way anybody is going to let me write a novel…”

After sending off a couple of chapters and a synopsis of a plot, however, he was well on his way. His five novels (Rosie, last year, was his most recent) and his autobiography have all been bestsellers.

Was writing his own biography an interesting experience? “It's a bit daunting when you have to do it,” he admitted. “When you are writing a novel, your imagination is pretty limitless. When you've got your life to write about, you feel rather circumscribed.” He was happy with the end result, however, and it sold “brilliantly”.

It has not finished there, however: he is working on another volume, concentrating this time on his Yorkshire childhood.

Alan remembers his Yorkshire Christmases with fondness (he moved “down south” when he was 19). “Yorkshire has always been my childhood home,” he said, before adding and without excusing any pun: “It's my roots.”

They were, he said, “halcyon days”. The father of two recalled: “My dad would make me things like a zoo/fort/garage . . .”

So what would Alan like in his stocking this year? “Oh gosh,” he said, trying to think: “A kneeling mat.” The knees are not as they once were, he went on, and he particularly didn't like kneeling on concrete nowadays.

Did he always get a glut of gardening gifts? Christmas cards tend to have a gardening theme, he replied, but generally no, not even as a joke. “People are a bit frightened,” he concluded.

Some might say that all they want for Christmas is . . . Alan Titchmarsh. What would he say? “I'm very flattered.” But he added: “I don't know whether my wife feels the same.” Mind you, his wife could forgive him any-thing: he cooks the Christmas dinner.

Alan, who famously picked up the runners-up prize in the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex award, believes his curious sex symbol status could have something to do with the fact he has Yorkshire blood in him, and that means, he explained, you “try and get on with everybody and don't be any bother”. He is well aware that some might say that all this “rubbing along with everybody” could spell blandness, but he added: “There are things that do annoy me: injustices annoy me.”

So what would be on Alan Tichmarsh's epitaph? That would be simple, as he said: “He was no bother!”

t Alan presents Fill My Stocking at King's Lynn Corn Exhange on Monday, November 14, at 7.30pm. Tickets are £17.50, with concessions at £16, available from the box office on 01553 764864.

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