Alan Titchmarsh: From botany to Borodin – a major shift in culture
He's nice, cheery, ubiquitous – and slightly irritating. So, what makes a man in wellies think he can host a classical music radio show? Matthew Bell meets Alan Titchmarsh
Sunday 01 January 2012
It probably says as much about me as it does about Alan Titchmarsh that mention of his name has always made me want to toss the nearest wheelie bin through a window. He's the infuriatingly nice 62-year-old telly gardener, unashamed to be the face of Middle England, a Pinner pin-up who never grumbles, except perhaps about the weather.
So what's my problem? Why do I wince when he twice uses the phrase "the whole kit and caboodle" to describe the composers he'll be playing on his new radio show, which starts on Classic FM this Saturday? Mozart; Beethoven; Brahms – tragic geniuses, yes. But kit and caboodle?
This is, after all, the man who inspired Steve Coogan to create Alan Partridge. Facebook is full of groups such as "Get Alan Titchmarsh off television immediately", and "Alan Titchmarsh turned me to crack". Clearly, there's something about the twinkly eyes and commitment to blandness that gets our hackles up. To millions, he's a sex symbol, as the Queen observed when she told him he had "made a lot of women very happy". He's laughed that off many times: "I'm only 5ft 9in, so I prefer to use the Dudley Moore line – I'm a sex thimble." Today, his look is more Sandringham than Radio Norwich: a sharp tweed jacket and a pinkish check shirt, rounded off by an expensive silver bangle.
And is that a signet ring on your finger, Alan? "Ooh!" he says, with camp surprise, "Yes, it is."
His voice is a bit too high for a veg patch idol, somewhere between Alan Bennett and Orville the Duck. The Titchmarsh crest, he explains, has three robins singing, because the robin is the gardener's bird, and the singing shows his love of music. He had it made up at the College of Arms – "before John Bercow!" – when he spent a year as High Sheriff of the Isle of Wight in 2008, thus allowing him to bear arms. There's a Latin motto, too: Et stylo et rutro – By the pen and by the spade. Isn't it a bit pretentious? "No! It's fun! It's rather sweet for the family. It's rather nice, isn't it? It's not posey – it's special. For a gardener's boy from Yorkshire... "
Titchmarsh never wanted to be rich and famous, and he hates the word "rich", preferring to describe himself as "comfortable". But money has not been his motive. "It's the stimulation that drives me." He hasn't lived in Yorkshire for 40 years. Why?
"I came down south for work and married here, so you could say I'm doing missionary work. I'm still a Yorkshireman. I'm not a xenophobe."
Hampshire has been home for the past 30 years, and he keeps a bolt-hole on the Isle of Wight, where he writes his novels, each of which has been in the bestsellers' list. He's so successful that Prince Charles numbers him among his friends. "I'm not a social climber," he says. "I've met people from all walks of life, whether it's gardeners or royalty, and I get on with them whatever they're like. I'm just interested in people."
But back to the music. Most people associate Titchmarsh with programmes such as Gardeners' World and Ground Force, which catapulted him to celebrity in the 1990s. What, you might wonder, makes him an expert on classical music? "I'm not a musicologist," he happily admits. "I didn't go to Balliol as an organ scholar!" He says it defensively, as if academic achievements were a bad thing. "No, but it's a mistake to assume that only people who are specialists can do certain jobs."
In fact, music has always been as much a part of his life as gardening. He was a choirboy as a child and met his wife, Alison, through an operatic society in the 1970s. He can't remember his first record, but Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain was one of his earliest. His favourite composer is Rameau, and obscurer names such as Borodin and Stainer trip off his tongue.
"Just because you don't go on about things the whole time, it shouldn't be assumed you don't know anything about it," he says. "Journalists love to pigeonhole. They'd love me to be just a gardener, and that would be OK. What do you know about music, they say. What do you know about natural history? Well, I studied botany at Kew. It's not bitterness on my part; it's exasperation."
After more than 30 years in public life – he made his first TV broadcast in 1979, as a horticultural expert on Nationwide – Titchmarsh is used to the brickbats. In 1998, his novel Mr MacGregor was shortlisted for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards, after a memorable passage involving "liquid noises". Although Sebastian Faulks won the prize, Titchmarsh gamely turned up and quipped that, where he came from, sex "is what posh people get their coal in".
Despite hobnobbing with royalty, Titchmarsh likes his man-of-the-people schtick. He loves to champion the middle brow, for instance, when talking about television. "TV critics always miss the point – not having proper jobs, they always want to be challenged," he says. "Most people just want to flop in front of the telly with a plate of food on their laps. That's why I like fogey programmes like Foyle's War and Poirot."
His Saturday morning show will have a similarly soothing philosophy – he wants to revive "what used to be called light music" and mix it with operetta and other choral works. "My job is to communicate my passion in an engaging way. I'm an engager, a communicator. I like to think I've got enough knowledge as back-up."
Isn't it annoying when celebrities replace experts, I say. It even happens in gardening. "Not everyone who talks about gardening on the radio or on the telly was trained as a gardener," he agrees. "I've had to learn to live with that. I've got generosity of spirit about that – if it's a passion, and they're talking about the bit of gardening they know and love, then fine."
Titchmarsh left school with one O-level in art to become a gardener, against the wishes of his father, who was a plumber. "The reason he didn't think gardening was a career was because his father and grandfather did it, and he thought it was slavery. I didn't know it was in the family sap until much later."
His father died when he was 62, Titchmarsh's age now, and he was "a typical Yorkshire dad – they weren't very effusive as a breed", but he did see his son's early broadcasting career take off. Titchmarsh Jnr was always close to his mother, who died more recently.
He came to broadcasting by chance via Kew, where he put himself forward to edit a gardening book, then, as Percy Thrower's editor at Hamlyn, he got the idea of becoming a horticultural adviser on TV and radio. "The hobby had always been drama, so I could marry the two by performing on telly about gardening."
After his series on natural history, Titchmarsh was likened to David Attenborough, but, unlike him, he has tended towards scepticism when talking about climate change. "The climate has always changed. The Earth tilts on its axis," he says. "My position is that it is highly likely that we are exacerbating the problem. But I'm always very chary about making pronouncements because I don't want to be seen as a tub-thumper.
"The problem is there are clearly two sides to this argument, and a lot of facts to digest, and too many people argue about it emotively. I wish people would go and plant more trees. Putting wind turbines everywhere isn't going to solve the problem."
It's conventional for anyone interviewing Titchmarsh to get him to swear, which happens unexpectedly when I ask if there's anything he can't do. After all, he has written novels, hosted the Chelsea Flower Show since 1983, and this month he will record his 500th daytime chat show for ITV. "I'm crap at computers."
Perhaps one reason he annoys some people is simply that he is everywhere. In fact, he says, he turns down more work than he takes on.
"I've turned down Strictly Come Dancing three times!"
Does he plan to slow down?
"No, I'd just rather do fewer things better. To do Strictly properly, you have to take three months off. And I wouldn't want to be improper."
Oh Alan! Heaven forbid.
1949 Born in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, to Alan, a plumber, and Bessie Titchmarsh, a textile mill worker.
1964 First job is with Ilkley Council Parks Department nursery while he studies horticulture at Shipley Institute.
1974 After a course at Oaklands horticultural college in Hertfordshire, he studies at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
1975 Marries Alison whom he met at Barnes and Richmond Operatic Society.
1979 Makes his first appearance on Nationwide. First child, Polly, is born. Camilla arrives in 1981.
1983 Begins presenting the Chelsea Flower Show for BBC Television.
1988 Offered a slot on the BBC Radio gardening show, House in a Garden, with Gloria Hunniford.
1991 Hosts the talk show Pebble Mill.
1996 Main presenter of Gardener's World, broadcast from his own garden in Hampshire.
1997 With Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, he takes gardening to the masses. Ground Force attracts 12 million viewers at its peak.
1998 Releases the first of his eight novels, Mr MacGregor.
2000 Appointed an MBE in the New Year Honours list.
2004 Awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's highest prize: the Victoria Medal of Honour.
2007 His own chat show, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, is broadcast.
IoS interviews of the year
30 January Patrick Moore (Interview by Paul Bignell)
"I can't go on for ever: I may not bring out another book. In my career, you could say it's the summary of my life so far."
On his latest book
27 February Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Bell)
"I'm so ashamed of Roman Abramovich."
27 March Norman Tebbit (Matthew Bell)
"I have never forgiven the IRA. I don't know how good a Christian I am." On the Brighton bomb which left his wife paralysed
24 April Nick Clegg (Matt Chorley)
"This nasty 'No to AV' campaign, I hope, will prove to be the death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are. That's why they are lashing out."
22 May Juliet Stevenson (Emily Dugan)
"I'd rather be useful than rich. It's more essential to feel you're doing something that's worth doing, rather than making a lot of money."
19 June Ed Miliband (Jane Merrick)
"I think if you'd told me as a teenager I'd be leader of the Labour Party, I wouldn't have thought that was going to be the case. That's not the way I've thought about my life."
31 July Vince Cable (Matt Chorley)
"We were never part of the sucking-up to Murdoch. We maintained our independence and that's what we are proud of."
18 August Gary Oldman (Demetrios Matheou)
"I've realised that I've got a fan base out there – and that they are genuinely pleased to see me back in the saddle."
25 September Tariq Jahan (Paul Bignell)
"There are a lot more good people than there are bad people ... but, unfortunately, the bad people find a way into our lives a lot easier."
9 October Rachel Reeves (Jane Merrick)
"Cameron doesn't get it on women. These women, many of them are caring for young grandchildren, helping their own children go back to work, and also caring for elderly parents and trying to hold down a job. I don't think the Government understands the challenges of working people."
27 November Ed Balls (Jane Merrick)
"The world divides into those people who like watching One Man and His Dog and those who don't. And I've always liked One Man and His Dog."
18 December Andrew Lansley (Matt Chorley)
"There are a lot of people who tell me that they agree with what I am doing and it would let them down if I just walked away from it."
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