He has been one of the UK’s pre-eminent broadcasters for several decades, yet one moment still stands out: his interview with Nelson Mandela.
Meeting one of the most iconic and heroic figures of the 20th century represented a pinnacle in his diverse writing and broadcasting career. It happened in 1999 when Titchmarsh was leading the BBC One Ground Force programme. He was joined by co-presenters Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh in South Africa’s Eastern Cape for the show’s millennium special, where he was asked to make over the former President’s garden. Gardens had been hugely important to Mandela during his imprisonment and Titchmarsh described it as a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“Mandela was a 'wow' moment. I got to meet him and sit down with him for half an hour and interview him about his life. With all those years he’d faced in prison, he was still not bitter. I asked him about that and he said there was no time for bitterness. That was very special.”
And yet, and yet. For all of the famous people Titchmarsh has met, he’s just as dazzled by the enthusiasms and skills of everyday folk.
“People don’t have to be famous to make an impression. I love wood carvers or pole turners or bodgers or people who rear pigs or herd sheep with dogs. I love people with different enthusiasms and who are good at what they do and are keen to pass it on. It’s difficult to describe what I do as work. The things I do are an enjoyment.”
Titchmarsh anchors Love Your Weekend, the ITV show in which he celebrates all that’s great about the British countryside, including arts, crafts, manufacturing and produce. He’s frequently joined by such celebrity guests as Katherine Jenkins, The Duchess of York, Craig Revel Horwood or writer Sebastian Faulks. Yet his TV work is just a part of a wide portfolio that includes gardening, writing for newspapers and magazines, presenting live events and penning novels and works of non-fiction.
His next big project will bring him to the West Midlands, where he’ll present Grand Christmas Classics at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on December 12.
The concert will feature seasonal favourites such as White Christmas, Joy to the World and O Holy Night plus traditional carols such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Come, All Ye Faithful and The First Noel. Titchmarsh will lead concert-goers through a superb afternoon of music in a concert full of Christmas spirit and classics. He will be accompanied by soloists and a full orchestra live on stage including The City of Birmingham Choir.
“I’m looking forward to the concert. I was at the opening night of the Symphony Hall and I’ve done a lot of work with the CBSO and Birmingham Royal Ballet, so I’m very familiar with it. To be there for a Christmas is just glorious. Live music is so empowering and Symphony Hall’s acoustics are second to none. As a venue in which to listen to music there’s none better and it’s gone from strength to strength.”
The presenter is mindful that people have missed out on such events given the lockdowns experienced due to the pandemic. He thinks this year’s event will be even more special than usual, therefore, as people return following a year out.
“I think this year is even more special because we’ve been starved of it. To be able to get out and come to a concert like this is something people will look forward to.”
TV kept Titchmarsh busy throughout the pandemic. With more people at home, he found himself making an increasing number of TV shows. His beloved wife, Alison, got in on the act after he was commissioned to do a three-part series. “Because of the restrictions, my wife became the cameraman. We were only supposed to do a three-part series but people liked it so much that we did six shows instead.”
Gardening remains one of his fondest loves and he remains synonymous with such shows as Gardener’s World, Ground Force, How To Be A Gardener and more. As much as anyone, he helped to popularise and democratise gardening, making it accessible and fun for the common man and woman. “I love gardens and the artistic side of things. I love lawns and trees and shrubs. I started off with nature when I joined the Wharfdale Naturalists Society as an eight-year-old. It was nature that pointed me in the direction of the garden. If you’re a responsible gardener you are doing your bit for compensating for global warming and climate change. It’s not just down to the Government, it’s down to individuals too.”
As well as gardening, Titchmarsh has always had a love of classical music. He sang in a church choir and remains passionate about it. “I think I’m very fortunate. I get to work in the things I love and I get to interview people on TV. I’m sure one day I’ll be rumbled. But for now I’ll get on with it. I only get to do the things I love.”
He is an avowed advocate of gardening for all. “I can’t stand elitism and people who want to keep something for themselves, whether that’s classical music or plantsmanship. I trained with the finest at the Royal Botannic Gardens, Kew, and I want to share that with people who can’t remember Latin names. As long as you do some good with the information, that’s what matters. I’m not a gardening snob. I really do want everybody to be able to do it.”
He loves his interviews, too. He enjoys people who are funny and charming, or enthusiastic and determined. “Whenever I interview someone who’s famous, I’m always asked by other people ‘What were they really like?’ My objective is for people to be able to see what they are really like by watching the interview. I like the interview to be: ‘C’mon, let’s just have a chat’. I want people to relax.”
Titchmarsh famously avoids working in tense environments. “It’s known within the business I don’t work with shouty directors. I expect everybody to do their job well and that’s understood. But I like a happy working atmosphere, that produces a better result in terms of the show. That’s the case with ITV’s Love Your Weekend. If it’s not a happy ship, it shows. There’s enough gets in the way technically without tension. I’m no pushover but I like to achieve it by doing it with a smile.”
Among his favourite subjects is the Royal Family, with whom he’s made a number of programmes. He’s a friend of the Prince of Wales, who he first encountered in the 1980s. They got to know one another well and Titchmarsh remains in awe of the effort Prince Charles puts into life. “I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit. Way back when everybody thought it was weird, he was talking about the environment. He was prescient in what he saw. He does bang the drum. I take my hat off to him, he won’t lie down. He keeps reminding us and he sets the example because his land and gardens are run on responsible lines. It’s not just do as I say, it’s do as I do.”
The most important, however, is home and family. He couldn’t have enjoyed a remarkable career without his wife, two daughters and a close group of friends. “I’m 72 not 32 but I approach life as though I’m 32 because I love what I do. This week I did 42 interviews for TV in three days. It got to Wednesday evening and I still felt fine. If you do what you love, it’s like Noel Coward said: ‘Work is more fun than fun’.”