Tommy Walsh interview
Tommy Walsh is a builder and landscaper who was watched by eight million people on the TV show Ground Force.
We sat down with him to talk about his career, accidentally threatening Nelson Mandela, and being punched in the face by Jeremy Clarkson.
Ground force was obviously huge. Do you ever still get the urge to break into houses and construct patios whilst the occupants are away?
Thankfully I no longer suffer from that issue. It took years of psychological examination and the repairs I’m glad to say have been successful. I do miss it in a way because it was it was great fun. It was actually doing something that I love doing which was landscaping as well as all the other building stuff I did. I love working outside more than I like working inside, weather dependent of course. No-one wants to be laying patios in two foot of snow, you like to be in the warmth in the inside of the house but I do miss it.
What was particularly unique about Ground Force is that it was family viewing. Half our audience were kids from the age of 3 or 4 upwards, and then you’d have the other end of the scale you’d have grandparents sitting with them, so you can all sit together and watch this family show which had all the ingredients you need for success and it had a bit of innuendo in it but it was never sort of downright rude or negative or foul in any way, it was just fun but it had all the right elements.
I saw that clip of you asking Handy Andy “so you want me to screw from behind”
That was very funny, it took us about 2 hours to get back on track because we corpsed badly after that. It wasn’t deliberate. Sometimes I’m guilty of deliberately doing stuff to cause an issue. Because when we were filming Ground Force we filmed it on one camera so we’d have to do reverses. So one of them would be recording a bit and I’d go like
(TOMMY MIMES UNZIPPING HIS TROUSERS)
Unzipping the trousers and all that. Charlie would have to keep a straight face. Or even Alan. Of course Alan would want to tut. But we used to do this just for the crack and it would just lift everyone and the crew, they’d all be laughing, so we had fun.
Did you do that during the Nelson Mandela episode?
(I COPY TOMMY’S GESTURE, UNZIPPING MY TROUSERS AND NODDING AT MY CROTCH. TOMMY, PROBABLY OUT OF RESPECT FOR MANDELA, DOES NOT LAUGH.)
No. No that was a bit special.
That must have been incredible, did you get to spend much time with him?
Yeah. That was the first show we ever did abroad and there were only two people at the BBC who knew about it. None of the press knew. It was the best kept secret. The press didn’t know until we were at the airport on the plane comimg home. I think it might have been the Telegraph told the story, and when we hit Heathrow it was chaos. There were hundreds of press.
Being at the time I was the third string player in ground force, they were all going “Charlie! Charlie! Alan!” so I grabbed a big newspaper and put it over my head and slipped under all the pandemonium and I was gone. I was in the car and home before them two had even got out of the airport. It was chaos. Successful little slippery movement there.
But he was a wonderful bloke, wonderful.
He seemed quite impressed with the garden. At the time I watched it I was quite young and knew who you were much more than I knew who he was.
Well I’d followed his tour of Korea
(THIS PART OF THE INTERVIEW IS UNINTELLIGABLE. TOMMY MAY HAVE SAID ‘HIS SORT OF CAREER’, WHICH WOULD CERTAINLY MAKE MORE SENSE NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT. HE CERTAINLY SEEMED TO KNOW WHO MANDELA WAS.)
for many years and I read his book “long walk to freedom” and I was nearly brought to tears when…
(TOMMY GETS OUT A PHOTO OF HIM, GARDENER ALAN TITCHMARSH, LANDSCAPER CHARLIE DIMMOCK AND FORMER LEADER OF SOUTH AFRICA, NELSON MANDELA)
Look at that.
(HE POINTS AT HIMSELF)
Not a grey hair on my head, and now look at me. He did that -
(TOMMY POINTS AT ALAN TITCHMARSH OR POSSIBLY NELSON MANDELA, MY VIEW WAS OBSCURED BY SOME KETCHUP ON THE CAFE TABLE).
It was your fault.
(HE JABS AT THE PICTURE, HARD. I HOPE HE'S JABBING TITCHMARSH. HE'S PROBABLY NOT JABBING MANDELA.)
But this meeting really was something quite special. It was probably the pinnacle of my life other than marriage and the kids. Professionally this was it. We’d finished the show and he was really great and I had my opportunity to get him away from his security.
It was all open. He had a low wall about waist high, and anyone with a rifle with a sight on could have shot him straight over the wall, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But he had entourage security all gunned up and he was walking away and he broke away from them, and I was in the corner of the garden de-rigging. He remembered my name and he came over and shook my hand and went “Tommy, I promise you that as long as I’m around, I’m an ambassador now and I travel the world for peacekeeping reasons and all that, you know, for children’s charities, so as long as I’m alive I promise you I’ll keep this garden as beautiful as you left it.”
That was something a bit special. It was my great opportunity to say something profound rather than profane. And what did I say? “You’d better, or I may be back”. Completely forgetting that he’d never seen the show, so he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He must have thought I was some sort of gardening mafia.
Did you have any hardware in your hand at the time?
(TOMMY LAUGHS, THEN ABRUPTLY STOPS)
Well actually… No I can’t say what I was going to say there. He did write to me about 4 months later, that’s on the wall in my study. “Tommy thank you once again for a wonderful gift”. And when we were talking he said “I don’t know whether you know, but I was in prison for 25 years, for a lot of that I was banged up in solitary. The one thing that kept me going when I was locked up for all that time was they allowed me to have a very small piece of garden in the prison yard and I was able to grow food plants and tomatoes, everything from that. That’s what kept me going. So I have to say that this [groundforce makeover of my garden] is probably the best gift I’ve ever received.”
I’m sure revising students can sympathise with being locked up with only a garden for solace…
(I WINCE AT MY DUMB JOKE. TOMMY IS KIND AND FORCES OUT A LAUGH)
Yeah, but the thing that brings it full circle for me is the fact that I got an invite to see the premier of the film about his life, The Long Walk to Freedom, so my wife and I went and it was mobbed.
That was the night he died…
Yeah it was, half way through the film. Before the film I was introduced to his daughters and we met a lot of the family and his charities. They were asked the question “should we stop the film and tell the audience” and they went “no, because he wouldn’t have wanted that” and it’s true. They were so right. And at the end of it I was asked questions about it and I said “the story about his life is the long walk to freedom and he hasn’t got to walk any more, because he’s achieved what he wanted to do and now he can lie down and rest.”
We got invited to the memorial service at Westminster Abbey with all the great and good. I was a little cockney builder from the east-end of London, rubbing shoulders with presidents and celebs from all over the world. It was a very special day.
Did you ever see your career going in this direction?
You call it a career, I’ve never called it a career, I’ve always called the media work “having a bit of fun” as an extra job. I’ve got the opinion that if you go to work, go to work and enjoy yourself. If going to work means you’re not enjoying yourself, change your job. Change your work. I said to my kids “I don’t care what you do, I don’t mind, I want you to choose something you enjoy, because you’re going to be doing it for a hell of a long time. And the money’s irrelevant because if you enjoy something and you’re good at it money is secondary and it comes along anyway because it’s a reflection of your ability. But if you’re doing something purely for the money and you don’t like it you’re going to have a miserable life.”
So if it’s a vocational career you want to follow, great, but to be quite honest I’m first and foremost a builder and landscaper and that’s what I love. Love it. I wouldn’t change it.
I’ve made a movie, played a hitman, written 6 books, produced television, made the best part of a thousand programs, I’ve been all around the world. It’s all strange, I’m not dropping stuff here, I’m just a builder. It just goes to show you that if an opportunity comes your way, grab it by the horns and give it a good ride because if you fall off and fall on your arse and you come unstuck, you can get up, dust yourself off and start again or go in a different direction: What you don’t want to do is get to the end of your days and have any “if onlys”. That’s the thing to avoid.
But getting back to Mandela, he had this amazing aura around him. Maybe one day you’ll be lucky enough to meet someone who had such an aura around them.
Were you involved in the making of the Sport Relief special Top Gear Ground Force, and during production did Clarkson ever try to punch you in the face?
He might try and punch me in the face but Clarkson ain’t fast enough or tough enough
(TOMMY NODS AT HIS CLENCHED FISTS)
But no I wasn’t involved in that one but he did it on Sir Stephen Redgrave did his garden didn’t he for comic relief but no one told Steve Redgrave. He was really… this is what we heard inside TV, he was really pissed off, I mean he was so angry, so so angry that it really bounced back on them badly, you know, he wasn’t amused at all, really wasn’t amused, and erm…
Did they have to send you round afterwards?
No they obviously had to rectify it but we [the Ground Force team] weren’t involved in that in any shape or form. It would have been quite funny if we had have been but they never did. I don’t think that Jeremy really likes sharing the stage to be quite honest. There’s only one light as far as Jeremy is concerned.
Tommy has a range in poundland and a new TV show coming soon, and can be seen playing a hitman in the film "One".