It’s our pleasure to invite one of the most famous builders in Britain – Tommy Walsh, to partake in a Direct Trade Supplies interview. Tommy grew up in the London Borough of Hackney and learnt the hard graft from an early age. He accompanied his father to work, who owned a breeze-block production plant and it was here where he first picked up the shovel.
Construction and building was in the family’s DNA, so it was no real surprise that he entered the trade industry as a self-effacing builder, but oh how times changed. A mixture of good, honest hard work, having great character and being in the right place at the right time catapulted Tommy from a humble Hackney builder to a celebrity face that everyone wanted a piece of.
His most memorable and perhaps biggest claim to fame was the role he played in the ‘Ground Force’ trio. Ground Force was a television programme that saw ordinary members of the public nominated for a surprise garden re-design. The show was headed by main presenter Alan Titchmarsh (Gardener) who was teamed with Tommy (Builder) and Charlie Dimmock (Gardener) to help complete the projects. The programme pulled in millions of viewers and was one of the very first to spearhead the boom in aspirational ‘make-over’ shows.
Ground Force ran for eight years and became a flagship show for the BBC – but that wasn’t the end for Tommy. Since Ground Force he’s gone on to be involved in around 1000 TV programmes from Challenge Tommy Walsh, Our House, Tommy Walsh’s Eco House, Trading Places, Tommy’s DIY Survival and many, many more.
Despite being a familiar face Tommy has stuck to his roots and continues to involve himself in the very same trade that once helped to kick start his career. We all know him as the big cheeky chappy builder but there’s a lot more to Tommy than meets the eye. So how about we crack on and discover more about the celebrity builder.
Q&A With: Tommy Walsh, The Celebrity Builder.
You must be the only builder, apart from Bob, who has found fame through a job in the trade industry. Was becoming an iconic builder always the intention or did this occur naturally?
It is very flattering to be described as iconic because skill wise, I am just above average; if anything stands out, it’s my passion! I have the ability to visualise the final picture before I start and I’m capable of communicating the basic simplicity of building – which in general, is just a series of different size boxes. I love the fact that you move around so much as a builder, seeing lots of different places, meeting lots of different people, and I honestly learn something new every single day. I really enjoy the camaraderie that exists between tradesmen, the banter and practical jokes, and I really respect quality tradesmen who are masters of their game!
My dad took me to work with him at the weekend, this roughly started from the age of four. He owned a breeze block manufacturing plant and it was here where I learned how to use a very large shovel from a very young age; so I guess I have cement in the blood. Years went by and I took the builders path. At the beginning I was a very happy builder, earning a good living and working only on recommendations. This is when it all changed – the TV opportunity came along. Let’s just say, I was a reluctant player but that story’s for another day!
Since your start right through to the current day, have you noticed any significant changes within the building/trade industry? If so, how have you had to adapt?
Yes, I’ve seen changes, the biggest being health and safety. The industry has become so much safer over the last 50 years, reflected by the fact that the construction of the 2012 Olympics (the largest construction site in Europe) suffered no accidental fatalities, which is a pretty staggering achievement on such a huge undertaking. We have also had major breakthroughs in developing both tools and materials, along with this comes safer practices to make building work quicker, safer and generally better. On a whole I’ve adapted and realised the value of health and safety, as well as the new tools, equipment and materials that helps make it achievable!
Unfortunately some bad habits persist and my pet hate are “Cowboy Builders.” There are also con-men who intentionally set out do bad work, and intimidate the weak and the elderly, even stealing their life savings in some cases! I believe that these people should be caught, all kept together on an uninhabited island and left to fend for themselves! There are also “Cowboy Customers” who deliberately set out to either not pay or pay much less than the agreed price. These would be ideal partners for the “Cowboy Builders” exiled on that island!
You seem like a very, excuse the pun, down to earth guy.. so how did the transfer from regular humble builder to celebrity builder change your work and lifestyle?
The celebrity element was never my thing. Obviously it’s very flattering to be asked for your autograph and photo’s but after the first couple of years it starts to lose its shine. It sometimes has its advantages in shops and restaurants but as you accurately described, I’m just a humble builder, and I still consider myself the same today!
I’m a bloke who enjoys the simple things in life. We have a lovely home that I rebuilt and it’s located in the exact same street I grew up in from a baby. I have lived in Hackney all my life, it’s a great place to live but unfortunately the genies out the bottle, the secrets out, and everybody now seems to want to live here – which in turn forces the house prices further out of reach for the local people. It is sad and ironic that Hackney has become a victim of its own success. I feel that the only long term solution is to start building public housing for rental and the sooner, the better!
What would you say is the hardest / most enjoyable parts of being a builder?
The hardest part is when you start out, I was always worrying about running out of work and money. If you are good at what you do, offer a decent service and you are punctual and reliable, you should soon build up a good customer base – which will help to ease your worries!
Working outside through the winter can be very tough. If you are not patient and careful then your work can be damaged by the weather, and this will cause problems with the client. You always need to remember that the quality of work and customer service are paramount.
I love my work, it’s there for posterity and is left for everybody to admire! You get well paid to do something you enjoy and there’s nothing quite like that cold thirst-quenching pint after a hot sweaty day successfully laying a concrete floor or something as equally testing. My wife always says “you are happiest in and amongst the muck and bullets” and it’s true, I love getting my hands (and everything else) dirty!
Out of all the shows and projects you’ve been involved in – can you name a few of your most memorable and tell us why?
All of the Ground Force shows were enjoyable, even though it was far harder work than conventional building! It was facing the almost impossible challenge of being up against time and the elements, and coming up trumps with a surprise outcome that everyone loved!
I enjoyed the special show we did in New York just after 9/11. We did the job with big Michael the concrete truck driver, he was a larger than life character and on the final day we spent time with Bette Midler, who was a real sweet heart. It was a tough job to take on and what’s more it happened to be the hottest weekend for fifty years – but somehow we managed to do it (with Michael’s help)!
Another one that sticks in the memory is the first foreign trip we did. We were sent to South Africa to covertly make over Nelson Mandela’s personal garden with the help of his lovely wife Graca Machel. Ironically Nelson Mandela was staying at the Clinton’s new house in New York, which was actually our backup garden if the Nelson Mandela show had been a non-starter. We managed to keep the whole thing a total secret – with only two people knowing about it at the BBC. Nelson Mandela absolutely loved what we did with the garden and he proved to be a wonderful, and most gracious host.
The press went absolutely nuts on our return at Heathrow. Knowing how busy it was going to be, I tried to keep myself hidden and managed to slip through the press behind a broadsheet newspaper. I arrived home and was indoors before Alan and Charlie even left the airport. Speaking to Nelson Mandela after the show is where I probably made my biggest faux-pas but again, that’s a story for another day.
I’ve made the best part of a thousand programmes and guest appearances, in what will be 20 years of television work next year. It’s difficult to chose my favourite shows and projects but I really enjoyed an earlier series that I did called ‘Trading Places’. The show had me trying out a range of craft and historic building skills, from thatching to brick-making, it was great to do and it proved to be very successful!
I suppose my greatest TV achievement was producing my first series called the ‘Ultimate Workshop’. What was different about this show was that I wrote, built, presented and produced the whole thing; it really was a rewarding and pleasant experience. It was so successful that I was asked to make a second, much bigger series, called ‘Tommy’s Eco House’. Again this was a very successful series, but if I’m honest I was struggling, and at the time wearing ‘too many hats’. Ultimately the stress took its toll and forced me to take some time out. After six months or so, I felt great, and got back on the saddle, although this time running at a canter rather than a full blown gallop!
Yourself, Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock were arguably the first team to fly the flag for home improvement shows. Do you think there’s a few charlatans out there trying to have the same effect but failing?
‘Ground Force’ followed ‘Changing Rooms’ by about six months, so I’d say we were the first of our particular genre. After us followed many imitations but none had quite the same effect as we did. At our peak we reached around 13 million viewers – up against Coronation Street.
If we were given an easier slot then I’m sure we could have achieved over 15 and maybe even 20 million viewers, which isn’t bad for a half-hour gardening show made on a tiny budget, with a small team of just 13 – including four presenters, film crew, exec producer, director/producer, production manager, researcher, editor and runner.
The X Factor achieves between 7 and 9 million views, which are much lower ratings than us but they have hundreds of people working on its production and it must cost millions to make. There certainly appears to be a renewed appetite for the return of some ‘quality’ building shows, so who knows, maybe the time is right for the return of Ground Force.
One of the most famous things connected to Ground Force is its opening theme tune, played by brass musicians the Black Dyke Band. But if Tommy Walsh could listen to three albums on site – what would they be and why?
The band 10cc had a hit record called ‘I’m Not In Love’, approximately 40 years ago. It was the hottest summer on record and it actually caused a drought, with this we had to take salt tablets to counteract the loss of salts and fluids.
That summer reminds me of a footloose and fancy-free time. We would start work really early, and then get back to Hackney in the afternoon to meet up with girls and go swimming in the two open air lido’s in Victoria Park and London Fields. These were great responsibility-free days, so I would have to include the 10cc album from that time. I really enjoy all types of music so it would be too difficult to select just two more albums. We constantly listened to the radio for our musical fix – as we do now!
Do you have any advice for any budding builders out there trying to find their feet in a highly saturated market?
Any budding builders that want to do well have to start early, work hard and offer an honest, reliable and quality service; with all these points ticked they’ll have a good chance of becoming the best in their field. Keep true to these ethics and the money will follow, and subsequently a very rewarding career will stem from that! Quality work and its demand is never truly effected by a down turn in the economy but in order to avoid total reliance on others, I would suggest buying a piece of land and building a self-build project to run alongside normal contract work.
The self-build project can be very handy in quiet times at work, acting as what we call a ‘hospital job’ to keep you and any employee’s working. Remember self-builds are tax and VAT free, as long as it’s your primary home for a year. One self-build project a year is easily achievable and if you continue this for five years you could find yourself up in the million pound bracket!
What’s next for Tommy Walsh? Do you have any exciting plans in the pipeline?
What’s exciting about my life is I never really know what’s coming around the corner, but this uncertainty isn’t something that worries me. The BBC and ITV still appear to be interested in commissioning TV series (if the right format is found). I’m supposed to be popping off to Mexico next spring to shoot a documentary series, but then again, nothing is for certain in this game! I have a few projects within property that I work on to keep myself busy if I am quiet.
I also have three children all living at home, who are at the age where they should really be looking to leave. Strangely, that doesn’t seem to be happening, their Mum’s made them far too comfortable, so much so I call them the “boomerang kids” because when they leave – they always come back! Of course, when they do decide to go Dad will have to help them buy and do-up their homes – ‘a builder’s job is never done’.
Finally Tommy, thank you so much for your time – you are an iconic figure and we are blessed to have you on our site… do you have any last words?
I think housing may become one of the biggest problems in this country’s political agenda. The short-sightedness of politicians over the social fallout that will occur after continuing to ignore the signs, really concerns me. Simply leaving it all to the market forces isn’t good news, just look at what happened when they did that to the utilities!
It’s not all doom and gloom, and I’m sure I can rely on the great British public to effect change; that’s when they eventually awaken from their slumber. I have faith that great British core values will make a return and our nation will shine like a bright beacon right across the world!
Best Wishes, Tommy Walsh