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Tommy Walsh describes meeting Nelson Mandela as the highlight of his career. “Top of the tree,” the celebrity builder laughs in his Cockney-accented voice. Incredibly, it’s been 23 years since the BBC star transformed the late South African president’s garden for a Ground Force millennium special.
He, along with Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock, were flown in secret to Mr Mandela’s garden in South Africa’s Eastern Cape by his wife Graca Machel.
There, they built him a pergola and water feature while the Nobel Peace Prize winner was away on a three-day overseas trip.
Mr Mandela returned to find the bland, rectangular green outside his study transformed into a landscaped paradise – and was so thrilled he gifted Tommy a walking stick sculpted from one of the trees on the property.
“He was six feet one inch tall. The stick was made for his height and it suits my height perfectly,” laughs Tommy, six foot five and now 66.
“It’s made from mahogany or a similar wood, machined on a lathe to make a stick with a handle. South Africa can be quite a violent place and I believe it also doubles up as a club so if you were to get attacked, it changes from a crutch to a weapon!”
And in a twist, Tommy today reveals how Mr Mandela’s generous present unexpectedly came to his rescue following a nasty fall.
“I’d been to work and was out walking my dog Ralphie in the park about 7pm,” he explains.
“He saw another dog in the distance and shot off. But the lead was wrapped around my hand so when he went off like a rocket, so did I! I landed on my hip and was in a bit of trouble.”
A dozen passers-by rushed to his aid. Brushing off their calls for an ambulance, he hobbled home and visited hospital the following morning.
“Luckily, there was no break but [I was told] it was going to be painful,” says Tommy wincing. “They said a walking stick would help. But rather than use an NHS one, I have used Nelson Mandela’s which has spent the last 23 years in my cupboard.”
Thankfully, he should only need it for a couple more days. As for Ralphie, his large and loveable four-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, readers will be glad to know that he’s not in the doghouse.
That’s because Tommy credits his dog with aiding his recovery from the throat cancer he developed four years ago.
“Even if I didn’t feel like going out, I had to take the dog out every day,” he says. “That exercise and positive attitude were very much in play when it came to recovering from my operation.”
Tommy discovered his cancer by chance after undergoing hospital tests for pneumonia. Doctors found the primary cancer in his tongue at the back of his mouth.
“Luckily it was contained and hadn’t spread,” he says. “It was an early diagnosis.”
He had surgery to remove it, followed by radiotherapy. “With lots of throat exercises, I was able to strengthen the muscle,” he says. “I used a special blowing machine and was able to make a recovery.”
Still receiving six-month checkups, he will be given the final all-clear once he passes his five-year milestone next February.
But he knows how lucky he was to spot the early diagnosis, especially following a previous cancer scare in 2002 when he had two benign lumps removed from his chest.
Which is why he’s teamed up with his ex-Ground Force gardener Alan Titchmarsh, to front the NHS’s first cancer awareness campaign encouraging people to get screened for bowel cancer.
The fourth most common cancer in the UK, it kills 16,500 people every year. “When you’ve survived cancer, you have this unconscious feeling that you want to help people with tips and routines to ease the burden of the cancer,” says Tommy.
“It’s very important the public take on board that it’s all about speed – the sooner your cancer is diagnosed, the better your chance of survival by a long way.”
People are nine times more likely to survive bowel cancer if it’s caught early, yet one third of people in England who were sent the life-saving test last year failed to complete it.
All they need to do is take a stool sample, using a bottle provided, and post it back to the NHS, free of charge, for laboratory analysis.
Tommy wants to help dispel the stigma around the test after it was revealed that one in five people said they wouldn’t do the test because of the embarrassment factor.
He himself has been doing them for years.
“It’s not an attractive thing to do and we’re all a bit at arm’s length with poo – but it’s your life at stake here,” he stresses.
“People quite often think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me’. Well, nowadays, one in two people will develop cancer, so you want to make sure. You might have it without knowing.” Tommy shed four stone in weight during his illness.
“Radiotherapy suppresses your appetite,” he explains. “You have to eat to survive and keep up your strength. I was lucky in that I had a little bit of – how should we put it – extra meat packed around the derby area before I started! I had some burnable material.”
He chuckles. Indeed, his good sense of humour has not diminished despite the physical and mental strains of the last few years.
Still, times were tough.
“My wife would try to feed me up with loads of calories to try and put weight back on me but for some reason it wouldn’t hold. We had real problems and I had to have fatty products to try and build myself up.”
Tommy’s still a TV regular on Homes Under The Hammer, and is about to start filming a new series of popular BBC One show Clean It, Fix It.
But his newly slender figure and thinner face on recent shows have prompted concern from some viewers who haven’t seen him in a while.
“I was able to keep the weight on and that has increased,” he says.
“So much that I’m at the right weight now that I should be for my height and age. And that’s where we’re trying to maintain it. I just need to be careful I don’t have too many beer calories which would put that spare derby back on again.”
He now weighs 16-and-a-half stone. He may be learning to live with “different geometry” since his surgery but time and patience have helped – “and having a loving family around me, particularly my wife Marie who did so much to keep my attitude up and stopped me getting the blues”.
His grown-up children JonJo, Natalie and Charlotte, engaged in gentle ribbing to keep their dad smiling during his lowest times.
“When I had the operation, I had all these metal clips put in my throat and the kids found a new nickname for me – Zippy!”
He giggles at the memory. “It was really funny,” he says. “And it’s really important not to lose your sense of humour. That’s the crucial thing that’s going to keep you going when times are hard.”
Indeed, the cancer awareness video Tommy and Alan have filmed is light-hearted despite the serious message underpinning it. They answer questions written on toilet roll and their natural chemistry shines through their gentle banter.
“It was fantastic,” says Tommy. He and Alan hadn’t filmed anything as a duo for 18 years, yet he says they were so comfortable together, it was as if they had been on set just the day before.
“The magic was still there,” Tommy smiles. When the pair, along with flame-haired Charlie Dimmock, appeared on Ground Force between 1997 and 2005, it was one of TV’s original garden (and much-copied) garden makeover shows.
Viewers loved their race-against-time revamps, often involving water features or decking (something they helped popularise as a garden feature).
“We should probably get Charlie and do a three-hander again because we’ve still got it. Everyone loves it and it still stands up now,” he says of Ground Force.
The shows haven’t dated at all. Well, we’ve dated, considerably. When I look at the early ones of me, I look 12! You look in the mirror and see the grey hair and wrinkles and you’re reminded it was a while ago.”
He had hoped for a 20th anniversary special in 2017 but BBC bosses weren’t keen. Might things be different following the return of another 1990s makeover show, Changing Rooms? “I don’t know how successful that was,” Tommy muses.
“I did watch one. It seems to have lost its magic but I don’t think that would be the case with us. We’re all so passionate about our fields that there was a natural competitive edge to us.
“Our in-fights were part of Ground Force’s success.” All three are now busy with separate projects but make time for bi-annual get-togethers. “I normally see Alan at Chelsea [Flower Show] and Christmas parties,” Tommy says. “We talk occasionally on the phone. We’re such good old pals that it’s like picking up from yesterday.”
Tommy became a grandfather for the first time 15 months ago when his daughter Charlotte had her son Albi. “It’s really good fun,” he says of grandparenting. “Of course, when he comes over he wrecks the gaff!”
Tommy’s wife looks after Albi four days a week while Charlotte works.
“The place is decimated after he’s been – it’s like World War Three. He loves balls so he kicks them around the house.
“And he loves building things and putting them together so whether some of the genes have fed through to him, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.”
A future Ground Force episode might yet be on the cards.
- NHS England’s “Help Us, Help You” campaign aims to encourage people who are sent the bowel cancer screening kit to complete and return it. If you’re sent a screening kit, put it by the loo and use it.
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