Gardener, broadcaster, TV presenter, poet, novelist … Alan Titchmarsh really can do it all and what’s more he’s been doing it on our screens for more than 40 years. We chatted to the TV favourite ahead of his Grand Christmas Classic show, at Symphony Hall this month.
Tell us about the show and your involvement: It’s a glorious show with the College London Concert Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Choir and the Quiristers of Winchester, and there’s Christmas music from start to finish. I’m so looking forward to being a part of a live music extravaganza again – it’ll be like a feast of the things we’ve been missing over the past couple of years. I’ve been doing this show for nearly 40 years now; I see it as my annual treat and it certainly puts me in the Christmas spirit.
What are your favourite parts of the show? This show is coming back with a vengeance after a year’s absence so to hear live Christmas music, rather than just playing a CD at home, is a real experience and anyone who comes to the concert will leave feeling completely uplifted. From my point of view, I get to sit on a stage with an orchestra and a choir, well there’s no finer thing to do. We finish with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which is my favourite carol, and it always makes me feel like Christmas is here.
What would you like the show to bring to people? I want it to bring joy to people, it’s as simple as that. It’s the difference between watching football on the TV and watching it in a stadium – how you’re lifted up and are part of an experience, and I think people may have forgotten how exhilarating that can be. To enjoy spiritual, rousing music reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas. Not only that, Symphony Hall is my favourite venue. I was at its first performance on the opening day doing the BBC radio arts programme so I have a very long association with the place.
You’re 72 and looking great – healthy, energetic, youthful. What’s the secret? Gardening, close family and friends, I’m very well supported by my nearest and dearest, and I love what I do. My garden enriches my life beyond measure, just to be involved with the natural world. We all worry so much about global warming and climate change but that little piece of earth outside your window can give you enormous solace and if we look after that it makes a difference. Things like being a responsible gardening, being organic, not using chemicals and looking after insects and wildlife, then you are paying rent to your time on earth.
Why did you get into gardening? I was about 9 or 10 when I decided I wanted to be a gardener for a living – it was a natural human instinct for me. I left school at 15 and went to be an apprentice gardener at the local parks department.
You’ve been on our screens for around 40 years. What have been your favourite and most memorable moments? Creating a garden for Nelson Mandela and interviewing him in 2000 was pretty high on the list of career highlights. The lovely thing was that he told me how important plants were to him. He said: “When I was in prison in Robben Island the only two things in my life that I had control of were two tomato plants growing in the prison yard. One of them died so I made a grave for it and put a cross on it because it was important to me”. He said he would look after this garden for as long as he could. It was very moving and he was such a lovely man.
You hosted Pebble Mill for many years so are familiar with Birmingham, what did you think of the city then and now? I’m very familiar with Birmingham and have spent a lot of time there. I started at Pebble Mill in 1987 right up to 1996 and it was the time when Birmingham was changing culturally for the better. It has become a very rich city, a real centre of excellence in so many different ways – whether it’s the art galleries or the Conservatoire there’s so much going on. And then to have the Symphony Hall at its centre is so great artistically; it’s one of the best venues in the land.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest stars, who stands out for you and why? Pebble Mill allowed me to meet some amazing people and not just big stars –anybody who’s got a story to tell and who is interesting. I’m thoroughly enjoying making ITV’s Love Your Weekend because it’s two hours of interviews and meeting people based in the countryside. I loved working on Groundforce because we had such great chemistry and we all got on so well. In fact, I’ve got Charlie Dimmock joining me on Love Your Weekend in a few weeks – it will be the first time we’ve shared screen in 20 years.
So, what continues to drive you? Being interested and stimulated keeps me driven. I try and pace myself more these days but I never wake up in the morning and think ‘what have I got to do today?’. I’m so lucky to have been allowed to do what I do for so many years.
And you have a passion for classical music too? My passion for classical music was always there. I was going to local record shops and buying classic LPs when I was about 13 14. I remember asking them to be put them in brown paper bags so my friends would think it was the Stones or The Beatles. So, to have my own breakfast show on classic FM on Saturday morning is wonderful.
And you’ve met the Queen? I’ve met the Queen several times and have sat next to her at lunch a couple of times too. I’m very lucky to have been asked to present the Royal Windsor Horse Show Platinum Jubilee pageant in May. I did the Diamond Jubilee and her 90th birthday. The stability she brings to our lives should be underestimated at your peril. I also do a lot of work with Prince Charles and he’s the hardest working man I know.
Finally, if you could talk to your younger self what advice would you give him? I was very unconfident growing up and I think to just have more confidence, don’t worry so much, do what you love and let your instinct guide you forward. And don’t get eaten up with jealously – generosity of spirit is the greatest thing you can possess. Always try to see another person’s point of view and not assume yours is the only one, and I think we are losing that ability nowadays. The notes that you sing through your life are part of a greater piece of music and it’s vital that they are harmonious with others.