I Find Building so Rewarding
Tommy Walsh tells about his love of the job, his hectic life – and a chance meeting with the star of the Full Monty
There’s a new generation of budding Alan Titchmarsh’s out there just waiting to get their own little plot – and it’s largely thanks to programmes like Groundforce.
Since the last issue of At Home with Tommy Walsh and ‘Handy Andy’ Kane came out,Tommy has been on our screens almost non-stop, and this coming year promises to be no different.
“Groundforce is a feel-good show, you can sit down with the family and anyone can watch it,” he says. “Over half of our audience are children, which is amazing. Parents say when it’s on they have absolute silence in the house for half an hour. I think kids like it because the show has humour, innuendo, and a wonderful surprise at the end.
“I’m hoping we have a new generation of young gardeners out there. We get letters all the time about children role-playing in the garden, trying to create mini-Groundforce gardens. Alan always gets the role of Dad and me and Charlie are the naughty children. Kids even think we go on holiday together and live together as a family! The reality, of course, is somewhat different!”
Tommy grins. He’s been happily married to Marie for 17 years, they have three children (Charlotte, 16, Natalie, 13 and Jonjo, 10), and live in Hackney, East London, close to where he grew up.
“My three still watch Groundforce. They’re extremely good critics, by the simple process of if the show is good they will watch it all, if it’s not as good as the previous week they’ll disappear.”
Tommy’s favourite episode ever was set on his home turf, in Poplar, in the heart of London’s East End. “There were two sisters living next door to each other who got fed up with going in and out through the front gate all the time when they wanted to see each other. One sister thought it would be good if we could make a gateway between the two gardens. I built a revolving gate in steel which I designed myself. I was very pleased and so were the sisters.
“Their husbands are real salt-of-the-earth types and when I had to open a show on the second day of filming they turned up sitting in the audience with wigs on, looking like they were in the Three Degrees! They threw a jet-black wig to me and guess who I looked like when I put it on? Alan Titchmarsh!”
Tommy roars with laughter. The show changed last year as Alan bowed out and Tommy and Charlie Dimmock took on the lead roles. “It’s been pretty good without Alan, although we had a few teething problems at first. We finally got it right on the second tour in the United States with American Groundforce. I miss Alan big time for the banter. I feel we’ve had to compensate for losing him so I’ve made the challenges bigger. It’s presented its own problems because I have to get used to the fact I’m not 20 any more and I still think I could do now what I did then – but now I’m 47.”
Our homegrown version of Groundforce is now back on our TV screens a and pulling in the viewers over here. Last summer, a new series of American Groundforce was completed and is now due to be shown there on prime-time TV. “We’ve been hugely well-received in America and we’ve been invited back next year,” says Tommy.
Many of you will have seen Tommy and the team in Ethiopia for a Groundforce Christmas special, building a long-house – “quite a short one, actually!” – and planting vegetables and crops for the villagers to harvest. The long-house catches water from the roof and stores it for use in the dry season, and the garden was a social place for meetings, weddings and parties.
You’ll also have seen him appearing regularly on the Discovery Home & Leisure channel in Challenge Tommy Walsh. Viewers write in and he and co-presenter Alan Herd, who’s a qualified joiner and antiques restorer, take a project within a viewer’s home to completion.
In the pipeline is an exciting new series similar to the hit show Jamie’s Kitchen except, Tommy emphasises, he won’t receive any financial benefit from it. “The idea is that I’ll take on a dozen youngsters from various backgrounds but mostly underprivileged. We buy a dilapidated house at auction – in an area like Hackney for instance – and within 12 weeks we’ll renovate and restore it to a lovely, up-to-date building or whatever it deserves. The kids will have to create a capitalist democracy and deal with the problems as they arise. There will be crises.
“At the end of that period it goes back to auction and the profit – for instance, if we buy for £250,000 and sell for £350,000 – will go to the kids. That’s their incentive. Some kids might want to keep their share of profit in the pot and use it to purchase another place at auction and do it up themselves – I’ve built in a proviso for that. It won’t be an apprenticeship but it might give them a taste for it, and there will be lots of scope for a second series.” Ironically, Tommy has, until recently, had a problem with his own house, and getting planning permission from Hackney Borough Council took two years and four months. “It was very frustrating,” he says, with rare understatement.
As if all that TV isn’t enough, Tommy also has four books – a compendium of DIY in the home and garden – nearing completion. But fitting in all his commitments is becoming increasingly difficult, even though he only had six days’ holiday last year.
“It’s a real problem, I’ve over-committed myself for the past two years. But it’s hard to juggle it because you make these commitments to do something eight months earlier and you forget. I don’t like to let people down. I’m a bad loser and I don’t like to fail.”
But despite his workload, the last year has had its lighter moments – including a chance meeting with Full Monty star Robert Carlyle.
“I had a meeting in central London and for once I was early,” he recalls. “I stood outside and all of a sudden I heard this voice saying ‘Eeeh, Tommy, what are you doing here? It was Robert Carlyle, but I couldn’t think of his first name even though I’m a great fan of his. He’s got a broad Glaswegian accent but this amazing talent to switch his accent too. My accents always end up as Welsh Pakistani!
“Robert’s an amazing actor but such an unassuming man. He said he and his wife were huge fans of Groundforce and we talked for so long I was 35 minutes late for my meeting. I never knew he was an ex-professional footballer for Rangers! I do charity football and he agreed he’d play if I was playing, so it’s up to me to arrange that game, plus a few beers after.
“I still play for my school team, the Old Parmiterians, and also for the Arsenal celebrity team which raises money for charity, which puts me in a bit of a position because I’m a West Ham supporter.”
Tommy’s charity work also led him to Bart’s Hospital, which once saved his late father’s life. “They did the same for my mother-in-law but I haven’t quite forgiven them that yet!” he laughs. When he arrived at the star-studded function at the old Billingsgate Fish market, 1,150 people were there – and he found to his astonishment that he was the auctioneer.
“Gaby Roslin introduced me and I had to raise £100,000 in 40 minutes. It was hard work, I was sweating – I’m just a builder, after all! The best thing is to just get on and do it but each time I do something that’s a new challenge I have terrible butterflies in my stomach. I think, ‘What am I doing here?’ But once you get over the fear and can be yourself, you can really handle anything. The first couple of minutes are really important. On this occasion I opened with a gag which was well-received and the rest went really well, but I don’t think I’m a confident person. I cover it with humour. I have the ability but not the qualifications, that piece of paper that says you can do something. But I can do it. Most things are logical.”
That logic extends to his ambitions for the future. Already a published writer, he’s now talking about writing a novel and would like to appear in a film – if the right role came up. “It would have to be something I could identify with, something local to the East End. I could be an untypical hard man oozing understudied menace.” He pauses. “Menace comes in many forms and I’ve seen much of it,” he adds intriguingly.
“I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I’ll always be a builder and everything else second. I find building so rewarding, the fact you can leave something for posterity. But the future? Who knows.”