Alan Titchmarsh is musing on comments he made a while ago about “whingeing” older female TV presenters. “If you’re going to make noises about not being employed, you have to be absolutely sure it is down to ageism rather than the fact that you’re not very good,” he explains gently. “I don’t think I’d be confident enough to say, ‘They’ve stopped me doing this because I’m too old,’ because my inner voice would be saying, ‘No, they’ve stopped you doing it, love, because you’re not terribly good any more.’ ”
He’s had unexpected cause to ponder employment matters lately. To garden lovers, May means the Chelsea Flower Show, and since 1985 for the viewing public that has translated into a week of programmes from the grounds of the Royal Hospital in London, fronted by Titchmarsh in the signature style once described by The Guardian thus: “Solid garden advice, mild flirtation with ladies of a certain age, the odd aside to camera in the manner of a hen-pecked husband, and the gentle persuasion that all is well with the world.”
No longer. This year, for reasons that haven’t been fully articulated, the BBC has anointed Monty Don (Titchmarsh’s successor as Gardeners’ World host) as their anchorman, sidelining Titchmarsh with the offer of a lesser role. No one can have been very surprised when, after three decades at the helm, he declined. So while the BBC’s “exciting line- up” at Chelsea runs to 11 presenters, the man who defines gardening to millions of viewers is not one of them.
Ironically, before meeting the BBC to discuss Chelsea 2014, Titchmarsh readied himself for trouble, lest a new “ambassadorial role” with Waitrose was seen as tantamount to forbidden advertising. But that wasn’t the problem. And clearly, even though Titchmarsh turned 65 this month, the decision had nothing do with age, since Don is a mere seven years his junior. The plain fact he had to face is that the BBC just don’t want him as their front man any more.
“Yes, I suppose I was hurt, because I know people enjoy you doing it as much as I loved doing it,” he admits, his signature cheeriness momentarily pierced. “But they probably felt it was time for a change and may well be right. Was I dumped for Monty Don? You might say that. I couldn’t possibly comment. I don’t feel dumped. They made me an offer I had to refuse. It’s up to them. I’m not bitter. I was disappointed but I’m not a grudge-bearer. You have to move on. Nobody owes you a living. I’m still gainfully employed. My days aren’t empty.”
Well, no. Remarkably 2014 marks his 50th anniversary as a plantsman. He left school aged 15 to become an apprentice with Ilkley Council in 1964, “the era of rosebeds, lawns and rockeries”. After years studying horticulture at college and then the Royal Botanic Gardens, he stayed on at Kew until 1974, when gardening journalism beckoned.
Five years later, he made his TV debut on the news magazine programme Nationwide and, by 1983, he was contributing to the BBC’s Chelsea coverage. He brought decking to the masses via Ground Force (“I’m rather tarred with it – they’ll probably deck my grave”) and has presented programmes as diverse as Songs of Praise, The Great British Winter and a profile of the Queen.
Now his eponymous ITV afternoon chat show is in its 15th and last season (his own choice), after which he’ll host Britain’s Best Gardens, featuring 30 of the nation’s finest domestic plots, and a new run of the makeover show, Love Your Garden. He has a three-hour slot on Classic FM every Saturday morning, while his books to date include three autobiographies, nine novels and dozens of non-fiction works, predominantly but not exclusively on gardening – his latest, about the Queen’s palaces, comes out in the autumn.
He has a key involvement with at least six charities, and is a deputy lord lieutenant of Hampshire, where Yorkshire-born Titchmarsh has lived for many years with his wife Alison. Their four-acre plot gives him almost as much pride and joy as his two daughters and three grandchildren. Hence he’s not exactly casting about for something to do.
Nor will he be absent from Chelsea. The Royal Horticultural Society asked him to create a garden to celebrate 50 years of their Britain in Bloom campaign, which encour- ages locals to “clean and green” their own area. Titchmarsh last designed a garden at the Show in 1985 and won a gold medal, although to his relief this year’s creation isn’t in competition. But he is particularly attached to the Britain in Bloom campaign because it reflects his belief in local change.
He sighs: “Question anything on climate change and you’re branded an ostrich with your head in the sand. I’m not at all. My point is that the only solutions offered are at government level. No one is suggesting we just put our wellies on and plant something, which would certainly help. I want people to get out and make a difference to their little patch.”
His RHS garden means he’ll be highly visible at Chelsea – BBC or no BBC. Some will see a certain defiance in that. Titchmarsh shakes his head. “I’m not one for strops. I’m not being holier than thou, it’s just not an attractive thing to do.” But there is forgivable satisfaction in his laughter when he reveals the BBC have booked him for an interview. “I wasn’t going to say, ‘No, push off.’ I don’t want to appear churlish, because I’m not.”
Fellow TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin describes the sidelining of Titchmarsh as “terrible”, but also says criticism of Monty Don “is born of jealousy – he’s obviously a brilliant gardener”. Invited to agree, Titchmarsh replies: “I don’t know enough about him to say. I know I recommended him to take over Gardeners’ World from me because he was a good anchorman.”
Don spent his 20s running a costume jewellery business, and his self- confessed lack of horticultural training is said to irk Titchmarsh. Does it? “Presenting is a skill in itself. I’ve presented programmes on classical music, nature and the royal family, all lifelong interests. I don’t hold Monty Don’s lack of training against him. He’s passionate and he gets through to a lot of people. We have different audiences. Good luck to him. I’m not going to slag him off.”
Still, Stefan Buczacki, former panellist on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, once said there’s “always an undercurrent of jealousy between presenters”. Titchmarsh leans forward. “Jealousy eats you away. There’s no point. Leave it behind. We’ve all got problems, had tragedies in our lives. I don’t see any point in whingeing. A trouble shared is a trouble dragged out till bedtime. The people who have life sussed are outward-looking, doing stuff for other folk.
“There’s so much self-analysis now. I realise it seems rich coming from someone whose work is in the media, the cult of personality if you like, but fame is a by-product, not a goal. What drives me is contentment, satisfaction and stimulation, and the avoidance of jealousy and bitterness. Those things don’t achieve anything.”
He sounds unconvincing when he says he hasn’t watched Gardeners’ World since he left in 2003: I’d either be grumpy because I didn’t like what they were doing, or uppity because they were doing it too well. It wouldn’t be healthy for me to watch so I moved on.” He still loves telly, though. Loves being on it, loves watching it.
“Strictly is my favourite. I’ve been asked to do it, but you have to devote three months to it. I love Claudia Winkleman. She makes me laugh. And I can’t get enough murder mysteries and costume dramas. High production values, beautifully shot – just the thing after an intense day.”
Could his philosophical reflections actually conceal a seething resentment that he’s no longer the BBC face at Chelsea? Were that true, the mask is so convincing he should give up his day jobs in horticulture and broadcasting and pursue an acting career. And if he has any professional enemies (which seems fanciful), they must be a frustrated bunch. There’s no weapon so unanswerable as easy contentment, and Titchmarsh has it in spadefuls. He’s his own best advertisement for what he values most about the British.
“I love our stoicism, the phlegmatic approach. The people I find myself admiring, famous or not, recognise what they can and can’t change, and are content. It’s not a way forward to dwell on the negative. I’m not a Pollyanna but you’ve got to live positively. Like Winston Churchill said, KBO – keep buggering on.”
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show Sun-Fri BBC1 and Mon – Fri BBC2