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Make hay while the sun shines

Tommy walsh shorts and all, is the first to admit that he’s a rather unlikely sex symbol. The much put-upon Groundforce builder has had letters from fans of most persuasions over the years, but the one he recalls with most hilarity came during a period when he was a bit more hefty than he is today.
"I used to wear cut-down shorts, when cut-offs were in fashion, which I’d bulge out of," he explains, grinning his wicked Tommy grin. "The BBC got this letter from a fan who said ‘Could Tommy be filmed wearing tight bicycle shorts so I could salivate over his thunderous thighs.’ It was signed ‘Gerald’. I went straight out and bought myself a bigger and longer pair of shorts!"

Tommy’s shorts all round have been the cause of some mickey-taking – or rather his braces have. "People don’t understand," he explains, looking a trifle hurt. "Let’s solve this popular misconception that my braces are for my shorts. They’re for holding up my belt and pouch which has all the tools in it. If you don’t have braces, the belt and pouch will pull your trousers down and you’ll reveal a builder’s bum!

"I bought my original braces in America but they became a bit of a thing with viewers and are sent to me from people all over the country, all with different patterns. I have about 30 sets now. My favourite is from an elderly couple who said in their letter: ‘We’re both in our 80s and we haven’t got any use for these but you have.’ The braces have pictures of things relating to carpentry and other trades on them. It was so kind, I sent them a thank-you note and started to wear the braces on the show."

Thanks to Celebrity Fat Club, Tommy is more in need of braces than ever before. He lost 21/2 stones last autumn by sticking to a low- carbohydrate diet and stepping up the exercise, and his trousers are loose for the first time in years. "Look," he says, pulling them out. "I’ve moved my belt hole in four notches!"

Tommy was under the care of a nutritionist and was given an exercise regime to stick to while he was trying to lose weight. "I did a bit of running, 100 sit-ups every morning and 40 press-ups, I walked up the stairs instead of using a lift, walked instead of taking the car – it was all common-sense stuff – and, of course, still continue playing football whenever I can.

"I cut out refined carbohydrates, bread, butter, cheese, potatoes, cakes, biscuits – all the nice stuff. I mean – potatoes! I’ve got Irish blood! But generally it’s not been too difficult." Tommy pauses to order a cheese and ham toasted sandwich on white bread. "Don’t you dare tell anyone, I’m not supposed to have any of this," he whispers. "But I had a few drinks last night and I need the carbs." Oops, sorry Tommy.

"I also cut out the Baileys," he continues. "I used to drink a bottle over a couple of nights, in half-pint glasses! They worked out that my daily intake of Baileys was 1,700 calories. But I didn’t give up beer – they said if I had I’d have lost five stone, not 21/2. You were allowed some treats but if you’re naughty you have to work doubly hard to compensate."

Tommy, who at six feet five inches was never fat in the first place, just a bit cuddly round the middle, admits he does feel better for his period of abstinence. And it’s just as well, for his work schedule this year is punishing.

Last October he took a look at his commitments for 2003 and found he was in need of a 58-week year! "I was six weeks overbooked, although that’s been sorted out now. This is my busiest year ever."

Groundforce is blooming better than ever, even without Alan Titchmarsh at the helm. "We’ve changed the format a bit," explains Tommy. "It’s just me and Charlie Dimmock with Willie and Kirsty King and people write in having designed their own garden and we adjust it."

This year will see Groundforce going to the US, where two series have been commissioned – and it all came about in the grandest of fashions.

"Groundforce got an e-mail from Tony Blair saying he’d been talking to President George Bush about the programme. Bush had seen it on BBC America and liked it so much he requested copies of the Groundforce series be sent to him!

"We haven’t lined up anything at the White House yet – no blue pergola to go on the front lawn, for instance! But we have already surprised Bette Midler in a Groundforce special in New York, and we’re in the throes of filming eight, hour-long shows for American TV."

Unlike Changing Rooms, where the BBC sold the format to America and other countries who then went on to spawn their very own Handy Andys and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowens, Groundforce is going there still true to its grassroots.

"A few years ago some bloke did buy the rights for New York State but he couldn’t find anybody to take on Alan’s role – somebody who had lots of broadcasting experience and was trained horticulturally. The last we heard Whoopi Goldberg wanted to do it because she’s an avid gardener."

What a prospect, Whoopi and Tommy and Charlie, all together in an American ‘yard’, as they call back gardens over there. They’ll be laughing so hard they’ll never get any digging done!

The series will take Tommy away from his family – Marie, his wife, and their three children, Charlotte, 15, Natalie, 12, and Jonjo, nine – for two lots of three weeks at a time. "It’ll be better for me than doing 13 weeks on the trot," he says.

In between hopping over to the Big Apple, Tommy has his other work to fit in. He’s recently filmed a new series of Tommy Walsh’s DIY Survival, based on his book, for Discovery Home and Leisure. He’s due to write another four books which will complement one another and build up into the ultimate DIY reference compendium.

"I like live TV because once it’s done it’s finished and for the period it’s live you have the balls in your hand and can give them a bit of a squeeze," he says with a wicked glint. "You have the power. You have to take it and enjoy it, not be frightened of it. It’s a bit of a giggle. You have to be fairly quick on your feet and ready with a good riposte, but then I am pretty quick at bouncing off people."

So what does Tommy make of his incredible success? After all, he was just a normal East End geezer working as a builder when he was plucked from obscurity. A TV executive whose house he was working at asked him to look at a pilot gardening series, Tommy’s criticisms were spot on and Groundforce grew out of that chance encounter.

"Sometimes I want to slap myself when I look in the mirror but when you get asked to do all that work you don’t always know if it will happen," he explains. "Then your diary is full up and all of a sudden you find you have no breathing space. But I like a challenge and work better under pressure."

Fame, though, hasn’t turned Tommy’s silver-grey head, and his big-booted feet remain firmly on the ground. "One has to make hay when the sun shines. Before they tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Sling your hook, we know what your game is’!"

In spite of his ongoing battle with Hackney Council over renovating a derelict Victorian house that he intends to turn into a magnificent family home, (read about it on page 260) Tommy remains firmly wedded to his East End roots.

"I was born and bred in Hackney. I met Marie on Christmas Eve in a Hackney pub when we were 20, and we went out for 10 years before getting married (I’m not one to rush into these things!) We wanted to start a family.

"I don’t think children are any less safe here in the centre of London than they’d be in a rural area, from the point of view of being approached, abducted or attacked by strangers. But living in town my kids have become streetwise. Marie and I make them very aware of drugs and drunks. You can’t wrap them up in cotton wool to shield them from it."

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