EXCLUSIVE: Nicki Chapman on her recent brain tumour operation: 'I’m doing well touch wood'

Nicki Chapman on The Great Gardening Challenge
(Image credit: Moritz Schmittat)

In an exclusive interview, presenter Nicki Chapman talks about the moment she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, her recent surgery and why her new show The Great Gardening Challenge is the perfect tonic....

It’s been an incredibly tough couple of months for TV presenter Nicki Chapman. Just seven weeks ago the 52-year-old presenter underwent major surgery to remove a brain tumour the size of a golfball and feared she may lose her sight and speech permanently.

Today, the former Pop Idol judge who is a regular on our TV screens with Escape To The Country and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, is brimming with positivity and looks the picture of health when we meet her at London’s Garden Museum on a bright sunny day. "I’m feeling good", she smiles, "I’ve always been an onwards and upwards person. It’s my way of dealing with stress."

Nicki Chapman, Mark Gregory, Carol Klein and Diarmuid Gavin

Multi-award winning gardeners Mark Gregory and Carol Klein are the judges on The Great Gardening Challenge while Nicki Chapman and Diarmuid Gavin host (Image credit: Channel 5)

Here in an exclusive interview, Nicki Chapman talks openly about the moment she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, her recovery and why her new TV show, The Great Gardening Challenge, is perfect feel good TV…..

You’ve recently undergone surgery to remove a brain tumour. Has your own garden become more of a sanctuary as you undergo your recovery?

Nicki Chapman: "Totally, I think outside space is so important. My garden at home in West London is not very big but over the last seven weeks since I had the operation, I’ve spent so much time out there, watering, pruning and just enjoying it. It’s a really special space for me. It’s got a Mediterranean feel with a big olive tree, lots of evergreens and massive ferns that are now about 12 foot high. I like a garden that looks like a garden all year round.

"We hear so much about how outside spaces can help your wellbeing and I’m testament to that. My doctor said to me after I was discharged from hospital, ‘If you can, go for a walk every day, do, don’t stay indoors.’ I thought I was going to be in bed for three weeks afterwards but that wasn’t the case."

You look really well. How are you feeling?

NC: "Thank you, I’m doing well touch wood. As soon as I came out of hospital, a good friend of mine came to see me. My husband was cooking dinner and she took me for a walk, she held my hand, because I was on pretty strong painkillers. I did trip up twice because of not being able to pick up my feet properly, but we walked down to the River Thames which is about a mile from where I live and I just felt fantastic for doing that, to be out in the fresh air.

"It was a blue sky and it was cold but the difference that that made was huge because I’d been in the hospital with all those bright lights and things clanging and banging about. To come back and go outside, even in a city that’s known for its pollution, felt fantastic.

"I’ve walked every day since coming home. I absolutely love it down by the river with all those huge old trees and wisteria growing over the brick walls of the houses. Whenever anyone comes to visit me we have a coffee and then go for a walk down there, it really lifts my spirts."

NickiArleneCrop Nicki Chapman

Before her diagnosis, Nicki Chapman recently presented TV Talent Shows At War on Channel 5 which featured former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips

It's hard to believe the operation was so recently, less than two months ago

NC: "I felt good as soon as I came out and I could see and speak. I knew then I could deal with anything then. Sometimes people do come down after a serious operation, I haven’t so far, but I know I’ve been fortunate. Not everyone’s recovery is like mine, everyone is different. But I didn’t feel particularly ill beforehand. I didn’t really have any symptoms. I felt tired and assumed it was the menopause. Everything’s the menopause!

"I did have an incident with my eye when I thought, ‘I can’t see properly’ and then it went away and then it came back later, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t speak. People were talking to me and I couldn’t answer. They didn’t realise because they were chatting away, but I was struggling to find any words."

Did you go straight to your doctor?

NC: "No, I went home, I was doing a voiceover for Escape to The Country. I went home and the next morning I woke up and thought, ‘God that was odd, I’ll tell my husband’ then I put my computer on and thought, ‘I can’t read this properly’. I rang up my doctor and at first the receptionist advised me to go to the opticians but when I told her it wasn’t just my sight she said, ‘I’ll get the doctor to ring you’.

"If she’d said you can have an appointment in two days I would have taken it but thank God the doctor rang and told me she thought I’d had a stroke and to go straight to A&E where they diagnosed a brain tumour. I’m not going to lie, I hadn’t had any headaches or symptoms like that but they estimated I’d probably had the tumour for between one and three years."

Nicki Chapman, Diarmuid Gavin, Mark Gregory and Carol Klein

Diarmiud, Nicki Chapman, Carol and Mark all got on brilliantly (Image credit: Channel 5)

You come across as an incredibly positive person. Would you agree?

NC: "I feel really good in myself, yes I’m really positive. Sadly, not all of the tumour could be removed safely so I’ve still got a little bit of “Burt” as I call him, left. I was in a good place before the diagnosis so it hasn’t been a wake-up call as such but it’s given me a deeper understanding of what it’s like when times are tough and hopefully I’ve got more patience and awareness of what other people are going through.

"We all deal with things differently and just because I’ve dealt with it one way doesn’t mean to say someone else will deal with it that way. I won’t lie, I did have dark days in the last few days before the operation I was literally on my hands and knees, I just wanted it out.

"But I tried to remain as positive as possible because that’s the only way I can deal with stress. I’ve always been an onwards and upwards person. I’ve had the most incredible response since talking about it publically but I’ve also had some very, very sad correspondence where people have shared their stories with their own experiences. I know I’ve been one of the lucky ones."

Nicki Chapman

Nicki Chapman says fronting a gardening show is "perfect"

The Great Gardening Challenge is  a brand new series. How did your involvement come about?

Nicki Chapman: "I approached Channel Five about making a documentary on talent shows because it’s been 20 years since Pop Idol first started. They said yes to that idea and then asked if I’d be interested in hosting a brand new gardening show too. I was absolutely thrilled. I’ve hosted the Chelsea Flower Show for years so doing a show based around gardens was perfect."

How does the show work and what did you enjoy most about presenting it?

NC: "Each week two pairs of professional garden designers go head to head creating gardens for a community or a project. In the first episode it's Norris Green Park in Liverpool but during the series we also go to care homes and charities. In all the cases these places have  spaces or patches of land that for whatever reason, maybe financial or through lack of manpower, have been under-used and un-loved.

"The two pairs of designers then have 48 hours, a limited budget and a specific brief from the people and communities who will be using them, to create amazing gardens and spaces that are judged by Carol Klein and Mark Gregory."

What do you think makes it different from other gardening shows on TV?

NC: "Besides being a competition between some incredibly talented designers, the show is creating gardens that people will love and enjoy for years to come. That’s why it was really important that all the designers made gardens that are sustainable, easily maintained and that look fabulous throughout the seasons. Even though we have winners in each episode that go through to another round, in my opinion there are no losers because the designers have left their legacy and communities and projects have two fantastic gardens they can live with and enjoy. The show has a real feel good-factor about it."

What was your highlight was from the series?

NC: "I especially loved meeting the people who would be using the gardens. I was fortunate to go into the hospitals and various places featured, including an amazing charity called Focus in Birmingham for people with visual impairment and a day care centre in Essex. I met a lovely man in Worthing where the teams made gardens for a veteran’s care home. He was telling me about his time in the services and how he’d gone on to have a business cultivating orchids. It was incredibly emotional hearing his story and how much the new gardens would mean to him."

What were the dynamics like between you and Diarmiud who present and Carol Klein and Mark Gregory who judge?

NC: "I’ve interviewed Mark numerous times at the Chelsea Flower Show where he’s won loads of awards, but this is the first time he’s done a series like this. He was fantastic. Carol is as passionate as ever, what she doesn’t know about gardening isn’t worth knowing, and Diarmuid is like a puppy, I was constantly having to pull him back because if he could, he’d be straight in those gardens, mucking in with the contestants. We all got on brilliantly, it was a dream show to make."

The Great Gardening Challenge, featuring Nikki Chapman, starts on Tuesday 2 July, 8pm on Channel 5

Tess Lamacraft
Senior Writer for What's On TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite week, Whattowatch.com

Tess is a senior writer for What’s On TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite and WhattoWatch.com She's been writing about TV for over 25 years and worked on some of the UK’s biggest and best-selling publications including the Daily Mirror where she was assistant editor on the weekend TV magazine, The Look, and Closer magazine where she was TV editor. She has freelanced for a whole range of websites and publications including We Love TV, The Sun’s TV Mag, Woman, Woman’s Own, Fabulous, Good Living, Prima and Woman and Home.