Charlie Dimmock is back on TV. There she is, mid-makeover on an exposed garden plot, tipping up a wheelbarrow full of mud, squidging down the earth around a newly planted shrub, swooshing her distinctively wayward hair off her face with the crook of her elbow, throwing back her head in hearty laughter before shooting a theatrical thumbs-up to camera.
Gone are the trademark denim shorts and skimpy vest of her pin-up years in favour of jeans, an over shirt and waterproof walking boots (number one choice on lists of things she can’t live without).
On screen, her presence is so familiar, so full of joshing and easy-going banter, that it seems incredible to think it’s been 11 years since her last primetime appearance on Ground Force. She still radiates the same practical personability that had her spotted as a TV natural at 26 when, as a garden-centre manager in Hampshire, she built a pond for Grass Roots, shown on Meridian (in ITV’s southern region).
Off-screen, too, she arrives for an interview emanating genuine warmth and unflappability. The question is: Charlie Dimmock, where have you been all these years?
“People think that if you’re suddenly not on telly, you’ve stopped working. That doesn’t happen, because we all have mortgages to pay,” she laughs. “I had been on TV a very long time [1997 to 2005], but I had always been doing other things. Ground Force ran its course. It was of its time. It was good fun, very enjoyable, and it had its run.”
Dimmock’s TV CV stops abruptly in 2005 bar another year or two presenting River Walks for Meridian, but her name pops up promoting bee-keeping and allotments, gardening for children and ponds for therapy, even campaigning against “dangerous” pond plants. Her TV break was unexpected and, in going back to her pre-Ground Force life, you get a sense that she has always taken things as they come and let life unfold organically. Who would have thought a role in a touring stage show of Calendar Girls would lead to her becoming a pantomime fixture as the Fairy Godmother and a green-fingered Fairy Organic?
“I’ve been busy. At the end of the day I do have a real job. I’m a gardener. I do garden design. I’ve been doing a lot of work with dementia homes, at flower shows, giving demonstrations, working on cruises. I’ve been pootling around doing quite a lot of things.”
Just a few months before the last episode of Ground Force aired, Dimmock lost her mother and stepfather in the Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. It is not something she has ever spoken about, but in her continued absence from our screens, there was a feeling that she had made a purposeful withdrawal from public life to come to terms with her loss.
“No, no, that’s not true at all,” she insists. “Ground Force just finished. It had been a long time doing gardens in the same format. The budget on the programme was actually quite small and there’s only so much you can do… with gravel.”
That is classic Dimmock. Back to business, with humour. And the subject under discussion is Garden Rescue, the new BBC1 daytime series she presents with Chelsea Gold Medal-winning brothers David and Harry Rich. Conjuring garden transformations on a budget to a brief, her role seems a natural next step: a fairy godmother poised to pull off a few Cinderella turns in a mock rivalry with two wickedly handsome brothers. The twist of the show is the competition between Charlie, who creates one design (“vague and water-coloury”), and the boys, who present a slick, computer- generated image.
“Our designs looked vastly different, which caused some funny moments when we did the pitch, but overall it’s more garden inspiration than rescue,” she reasons. “What I have enjoyed is going along to meet the families. On Ground Force, we surprised people by transforming their garden while they were absent, but it was lovely getting to know the clients. There was the couple whose twins arrived prematurely – they were due after we’d been there filming – and they were both so with-it, although they looked tired, with cocktail sticks holding open their eyes!”
The 20 garden projects posed unique challenges, from the family who wanted a trampoline for a daughter who needed to do physio without it feeling like physio (Dimmock suggested an in-ground trampoline, which, once removed, could be turned into a pond) to a couple who had lost their son and wanted to re-embrace the garden their children had grown up in. One client was a keen photographer and wanted a wildlife garden to attract bees, birds and butterflies; another couple were excited about creating a garden of their own after years of living in Army quarters.
All her proposals centre on a contagious love of plants and an eye for a design feature that can evolve. To this end, in refurbishing her own
house a few years ago, she included a structure that will enable her to install a lift for her old age. “I also had all the toilets put at a higher level because I hate those plastic things that go over the seat!”
In tandem with Changing Rooms, Ground Force pioneered the home improvement genre. It established Alan Titchmarsh as the man who brought decking to the masses, Tommy Walsh as the cheeky chappie “celebrity builder” and Dimmock as “horticultural viagra”, given her penchant for going bra-less under a vest top.
At its peak, Ground Force attracted 12 million viewers, which for Dimmock translated into enormous popularity and a passionate fanbase who sent her mail, not to mention hundreds of hair scrunchies, and bought her official calendar with such fervour it outsold one featuring Caprice, the lingerie model du jour.
Approaching her 50th birthday next month, Dimmock swats away any reference to her bra-less days as if the whole business were a pesky fly. “All that was all so silly and a long time ago,” she says.
Being a woman comfortable in her own skin, she shrugged off the fuss at the time, explaining it was a comfort thing, that a bra is restrictive when you’re doing seriously physical work. She has long been resigned to the recurrent references to her pin-up days since a chat about her nickname with Esther Rantzen who said, “I was always referred to as the ‘buck-toothed presenter’ and I had my teeth fixed years ago!”
Is she ready to face the inevitable scrutiny that is one of the drawbacks of regaining a higher public profile? “Move along, move along, I’ll say! Look at the boys, they’re much more attractive. On this series I can be a grumpy old cow or, as they termed me ‘the dragon’ – but I hope with love in their voice.”