TV Presenter Nicki Chapman, 52, is not hosting the BBC’s coverage of The RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year because she is recovering from brain tumour surgery
TV presenter Nicki Chapman is as much a fixture of the Chelsea Flower Show — that annual extravaganza of horticultural brilliance — as its glorious perennial blooms.
Piloting viewers through the show gardens, interviewing medal winners, chatting to guests; her sunny commentary has brought a dash of down-to-earth charm to the programme for the past 13 years.
But next week, when the show opens, for the first time since 2006, she will not be hosting it. She has kept the reason secret until now, but today I can reveal that she will be absent from the BBC’s presenting team because she is recovering from major surgery to remove a brain tumour.
Just a week-and-a-half after her operation, I visit her at her home in West London.
I expect to find her wan, listless and reclining on a sofa with her head shaved. Actually, she’s standing in her sun-filled garden laughing. She looks as though she’s just returned from a restful holiday — fit and glamorous, her blonde hair sleek — not recuperating from a four-and-a-half hour op to remove a tumour the size of a golf ball from her brain.
‘Yes!’ she agrees brightly, ‘I thought I’d have to wear a comedy bandage round my head and look like a Smurf for two weeks, but they took it off after two days.
‘And I’m flabbergasted at how well I feel and how quickly I’ve recovered. I feel fantastic.
‘Two days after the surgery I was hallucinating slightly. People had funny Disney cartoon noses and there were things like fireworks at the corner of their eyes. It was just my sight re-adjusting. (It had been affected by the tumour.)
Nicki noticed a change in her vision and suffered worrying memory lapses before her diagnosis. She underwent the operation at Charing Cross Hospital in London at the beginning of May
‘Now I’m not even taking pain-killers. I walk a mile every day by the river and hope soon to do some gentle exercise at the gym.
‘The NHS care I’ve had at the Charing Cross Hospital in London has been first class. Amazing. And I’ve found an inner strength. My mum said: “I’m a tough old bird and you’re like me, Nicki.”’ She laughs.
‘But although I feel fine, my lovely surgeon has told me I shouldn’t go back to work for six weeks. You have to give yourself the best possible chance to heal, so I won’t be presenting the Chelsea Flower Show this year.
‘You start at 5am and it’s five 12-hour days, and I don’t think I could manage that yet. I’m devastated. I watched the preview and it made me cry. I’ve done it since 2006 and, of all the shows I present, it’s the one I really regret not being able to do. But I have to follow my doctor’s advice. You don’t get a second chance to recover.’
Everyone warms to Nicki — ‘that nice lady off the telly’, as she’s been known ever since she was a judge on Pop Idol in 2001 and refused to find fault with even the direst amateur contestants on the TV show.
This year will be the first since 2006 that Nicki Chapman is not presenting at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (she is pictured at the 2015 show with Prince Charles)
And she is lovely: she’s there in the airy kitchen/living room of her glorious Victorian house cutting cakes into bite-sized chunks when I arrive, setting platters of fruit on the counter, cajoling me to eat.
The room is festooned with ‘get well’ flowers and cards, although only a close coterie of trusted friends and family know about her brain tumour. This is the first time she has talked publicly about it. Even her Chelsea Flower Show co-hosts are unaware of why she’ll be absent this year.
‘Joe Swift (the gardener and one of her co-presenters) said: “You’re not on the call sheet this year. Why aren’t you doing the show?” And I just said: “I’ve had an operation.”’
‘The NHS care I’ve had at the Charing Cross Hospital in London has been first class. Amazing. And I’ve found an inner strength,’ Nicki told Frances Hardy
She’s been similarly evasive with others. Announcing an operation to excise a brain tumour is jaw-dropping news. It is difficult both to impart and respond to.
‘But I’m talking about it now because, although I was petrified, I tried to stay positive. It was the worst news I’ve ever had in my life, but I thought: “We’re going to find a way through it.” And I really hope that other people who get a similar diagnosis have the excellent treatment I had, and find the same inner strength.
‘Someone told me: “If you go into an operation crying, you’ll wake up crying.” So my husband, Shacky (record company executive Dave ‘Shack’ Shackleton, 51, who also co-manages the rock band Iron Maiden) and I had a rule: you can only cry for 30 seconds.”
‘And I found a cutting in a magazine about the jockey Frankie Dettori. Before every race he’d say “I remain happy. I banish negative thoughts”, and I put it by on my bedside table in the hospital ward the night before my operation.
‘I just knew I was going to be fine.’
However, the onset of the symptoms of her tumour had been sudden and unnerving. The first sign that all was not well came at the end of March this year. Nicki noticed a change in her vision.
‘I couldn’t seem to move my eyes across a line of words to read them on my computer. And I struggled to type a response to emails. Shacky said I was probably just tired. Then I went for coffee with a girlfriend and asked her: “Do I look funny to you? I’m only looking at you with one eye.” But she said I looked fine.’
Nicki Chapman is pictured with her neuro-surgeon David Peterson two days after her operation to remove a golf ball sized brain tumour
Nicki, 52, also suffered worrying memory lapses. ‘I went to do a voice-over for Escape To The Country (one of the BBC shows she co-presents) and I couldn’t remember the name of John, the executive producer. I’ve known him for 15 years. I had to look it up on my phone.
‘Then I realised my speech was subtly affected. I was talking about a holiday we’d just had in Dubai. I could see the word Dubai in my mind, but I struggled to say it. I told myself it must be the menopause.
‘I told John about it and he asked if I suffer from migraines — I don’t — because he does and has similar problems. I did the voice-over, went home, did some housework then put on the computer and the words on it were blurred. Really, it all happened in the space of a couple of days.’
The next day Nicki rang her GP. Describing her symptoms — the memory lapses, speech problems and impaired vision — the doctor said she thought Nicki had suffered a stroke and urged her to go directly to A&E at her nearest hospital, Charing Cross in Hammersmith.
Nicki leaving Charing Cross Hospital in central London four days after the operation earlier this month
‘She asked if my husband was with me and said we should go straightaway, so we raced down. Other than a thumping stress headache, I felt absolutely fine.
‘When we got there they saw me within ten minutes. They asked me why I hadn’t come in the day before, and I explained that I thought my problems were menopause-related.
‘They swung into action, took bloods and scans and I started to think: “This is serious.” Then they called another doctor, a neurosurgeon, and he said: “You haven’t had a stroke. It’s a brain tumour and you’ve had it for years.”
‘I was in a cubicle with Shacky and my first reaction was complete shock. When you hear bad news, it’s like a gush of wind coming towards you. I remember thinking: “Just concentrate on what they’re telling you.”
Nicki Chapman at home in London, less than two weeks after her brain operation
‘Shacky went pale. A big, fat tear was running down my face. I said: “I’m really sorry I’m upset. Just tell me what I need to know,” and the doctor was fantastic. He said I’d need more tests, an MRI scan and surgery.
‘I didn’t think I was going to die. It was just: “Who would have thought it?” It would never have occurred to me.’ By the time Nicki got back home late that afternoon, she knew she had a tumour on the back, left-hand side of her head. She and her husband called it Burt and resolved not to succumb to misery.
But she took the precaution of making sure her will was in order: ‘I owed it to Shacky and my family in the worst-case scenario,’ she says. ‘And it was then, too, that we made the 30-second rule. You couldn’t cry for longer than that, otherwise you’d never stop.’
Nicki, who has no children, called her parents, Carol, 77, and Barry, 78 — divorced and both happily remarried — ‘and I could hear Dad catch his breath when I told him. Mum processed the news in a very logical way. No histrionics, no tears. I knew they’d be supportive and I was amazed at how calm they were.
‘And my sister Shelley’s best friend had come through a similar operation. She was very positive and informed.’
Events then moved quickly. Nine days on, she was seeing neurosurgeon David Peterson. ‘He told me the MRI scan had revealed a tumour the size of a golf ball pressing on my brain, and he said: “We need to operate quite soon. But we won’t be cutting off your hair!”
‘At that point, I told him I loved him.’ She beams. Actually, she says, this was the least of her concerns.
After being told she could suffer a bleed on the brain during the surgery, Nicki said: ‘If anything goes wrong, I don’t want to be resuscitated and come back in a body I can’t use’
‘He said within six to eight weeks I should be carrying on with my life, but there were areas of concern: I might lose the sight in one eye and there could be issues with speech and mobility.
‘I’d already been told I couldn’t drive, because of the risk of seizures, but frightening as these things are, I knew I’d be fine.’
And the best news of all was that it seemed — although they wouldn’t know conclusively until a biopsy was carried out — that the tumour, a meningioma that grows on the membranes that surround the brain, was benign.
‘When Mr Peterson told me this, I felt I’d been given my life back,’ says Nicki. ‘Whatever the final outcome was, I could deal with it and eventually move on.
‘When you know what you’re dealing with, you can face it. It’s the unknown that’s truly terrifying.’
A couple of days later, at the beginning of May, she was called in to Charing Cross Hospital — which, by sheer good fortune, is a centre of excellence for the treatment of brain tumours — for her operation.
Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, London (pictured) is, by sheer good fortune, a centre of excellence for the treatment of brain tumours
She chose not to go privately: ‘I truly believe in the NHS and felt strongly that this option would give me the very best possible treatment and care. Mr Peterson said: “That’s the right decision,” and, through the whole process, everyone was just brilliant.
‘Some of the hospital staff said: “Oh! We know you from the telly!” But everyone was discreet. Not a word leaked out.’
Settled into a six-bed ward — armed with a new dressing gown and a turban bought by friends — on the evening before surgery, she recalls: ‘I had my rosary from my school days with me, a St Christopher my father had given me, and a card from my mum with the meaning of my name — strong and brave. Shacky sat with me and we talked about everything and nothing.
‘They’d said I could suffer a bleed on the brain during the surgery and I’d told him: “If anything goes wrong, I don’t want to be resuscitated and come back in a body I can’t use.”’
Nicki Chapman at the Chelsea Flower Show, in London on May 2016
Her brown eyes brim with tears when she says this: it is the only time her cheerful composure deserts her. We’re sitting on a sofa by doors that open onto her terrace garden — inspired by designs from the Chelsea Flower Show — where palm trees riffle in the breeze. There’s an occasional thwack of tennis balls from the courts behind. Birdsong fills the air. It is a golden afternoon.
She recalls the relief of coming round from surgery and finding the worst had not happened — she could see from both eyes and speak. Her first thought was to contact Shacky, to whom she’s been married for 20 years, and a ‘very kind’ member of staff in the resuscitation room called him.
‘Then Mr Peterson came through and I said: “Is that my handsome consultant?’ and he smiled and said: “We’re all right, Nicki. We’ve got most of it out.” Part of the tumour — which was benign — had grown next to one of the main cerebral veins and they’d left a little bit there because there would have been a risk from removing it.
‘And I know it might come back, but if it does they’ll deal with it before it gets too big. We’ll address that if we need to. I’m quite happy.’
There is no evidence of the surgery save for a neat four-inch scar and eight tiny disc-shaped shaved patches on her head where incisions were made.
By the end of June, she hopes to be filming Escape To The Country again, piloting would-be home buyers round their dream properties in bucolic corners of Britain. Then — as long as she’s allowed to fly — she’ll be off to Oz for a series of Wanted Down Under. She also starts filming a new gardening show, Great Garden Challenge, in July.
‘Oh, and I’m off to Glastonbury for the first time — I’ve always wanted to go!’ she says, smiling.
‘I don’t know about the future,’ she adds, ‘but I’m as optimistic as I possibly can be. I feel I’ve dodged a bullet. I’m really lucky: a week-and-a-half after brain surgery, and just look at me.’