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Byline: Catrin Pascoe and Tim Wilkinson

Meet Harry Greene - the DIY guru behind today's obsession with home renovation. The designer to the stars, who risked it all in the Valleys to make his name, has just published his 23rd book. The creator of Changing Rooms and DIY SOS is celebrating his 80th birthday and has no intention of retiring. Catrin Pascoe and Tim Wilkinson report

HARRY GREENE has lived a rich and varied life. He has starred alongside Sir John Gielgud, Lana Turner, Charlie Chaplin and Sean Connery in 47 films, and acted in theatres across the nation and the West End.

He has written 23 books, presented more than 2,000 DIY programmes and helped 32 stars, including Barbara Windsor, Neil Morrissey, Sheila Hancock and Paul McKenna, redesign their homes.

He turned 80 this weekend and this Christmas can be found skiing on the exclusive slopes of Klosters in the Swiss Alps.

The father-of-three, including former Going Live and Blue Peter favourite Sarah Greene, says, 'I shall never retire. There are two more books people want me to write. I am setting up a company to do a new series restoring an old house on television. I'm still involved in the building company I have been running for 30 years.

'And I still go down to Rhymney, where my sister Mary Church lives. They treat me like an old Rhymney boy; other places it's stupidly a red carpet - I'm just a builder.'

He's a builder who's just persuaded David Jason, whose mother was born in the Valleys town, and Sin Lloyd to become patrons of the local cancer charity Helping Hands.

He's a builder who was taught magic and tap dancing by Charlie Chaplin on the set of King in New York.

He's a builder who is teaching Max Bygraves to lay bricks in his television series DIY Challenge, 40 years after playing the corporal instructing squaddies in Bygraves' first film Charlie Moon.

And the grandfather is a builder who's just revamped Barbara Windsor's study as a theatre dressing room, complete with light bulb-surrounded mirror. Hit a switch and the dressing table reveals a computer.

'I am an optimist and always have been,' says the man dubbed Britain's leading DIY expert. 'I know if I do not get work I can always promote it.'

The story begins when 10-year-old Harry spent weekends with his favourite uncle on Bargoed's Top Pit. A maintenance man, he taught Harry to use tools properly.

His parents Jack, a miner who returned from World War I suffering from mustard-gas poisoning, and Una were keenly interested in the arts, poetry and music and regularly entertained neighbours in Colenso Terrace, Rhymney, in the front parlour.

The town, says Harry, also became an inspiring hive of artistic activity - Evans the grocer producing dramas, Windsor Davies enthralling youngsters with the secrets of stage design and prop-making, and artist Hubert Gilbert teaching the techniques of oil and water colour.

At Rhymney Grammar School, he was taught sports by Olympic swimmer CB Thomas and became a record-breaking runner, gifted rugby player and Welsh long jumper. 'It was a very exciting time. A lot of people said they did not have a happy memory of school and childhood, but ours' was totally happy.'

An ambitious Harry qualified as an engineering draughtsman and during World War II was seconded to detailing classified work - plagued by little sleep and constant bombing - for the Army's Royal Engineers for the Russian Offensive. After just two years of war service, Jack was to die in 1941, due to being gassed more than 20 years before.

But Greene's dreams of appearing on stage became a reality during his post-war studies in Cardiff. He met Terry Nation, the creator of Dr Who, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on British television this weekend. And together they worked on university shows.

Greene's digs overlooked the city's Cory Hall, from which radio shows were broadcast. With guile he offered his services to Mae Jones, the producer of Eynon Evans's comedy shows featuring a young Harry Secombe.

Greene came up with an idea to supplement scholarship funds to give him enough money to buy an ex-WD 350 Royal Enfield motorbike. Using sheets of perforated laminate left over from sequin manufacturing, he made Christmas decorations and sales were huge.

Expeditions on his new bike became favourite bedtime stories for his three children, Sarah, who now works for BBC's Holiday series; Laura, who now anchors the National Geographic Channel in Washington DC, and Robin, owner of a Swiss-based production company. His pal Henry Curly also bought one and together they travelled 6,000 miles through France, Switzerland and Italy.

Greene returned to take up the post of art and technology master at Tredegar Grammar School back home, being spoiled by his mother in Church Street, Rhymney, next door to the baker's shop. His well-fed appearance in the school photograph is testimony to cakes and school dinners daily.

But it was at the school that a turning point was to take place in Harry's life. Asked to take the drama classes, he chose to take the class to see a play by a touring company called Theatre Workshop. It was a decision that changed his life.

'Thinking now when I look back from the time of my old uncle at Top Pit in Bargoed, everything then seemed to be going in a certain direction and everything helped get me into theatre as an actor then into television. It's almost a culmination of the whole thing.'

Joan Littlewood, scion of the British stage, wanted a young Welshman to play various parts. But this young Welshman also needed to be able to design and construct sets, drive the lorry and stage-manage shows. Before the company trundled off in their loaded lorry, Harry had signed up for a month's trial. He made sets and props on pavements as they played in miner's institutes and church halls. His life had changed forever. From pounds 20 a week as a teacher, he was to get pounds 5 a week from takings at the door.

His headmaster was aghast, spluttering, 'You'll live to regret this foolish notion'.

At Theatre Workshop's base in Manchester, Harry worked 20 hours a day, playing to schools, learning the skills of an actor, designer and stage-manager. He was accepted and two weeks later was bound for Norway and Sweden on a British Council tour, an Equity backed artisan/thespian on the adventure of a lifetime. Weeks before he had been 'a polished-shoe, briefcase-carrying teacher', a pillar of a small Welsh community but with a 'foolish notion'. The tour was a triumph.

Two years of intensive acting and training followed, touring the UK, Harry driving an old Bedford truck with nine tons of equipment and 14 actors in the back. Despite artistic success, mechanical failure almost resulted in Theatre Workshop's demise on a tour to Scotland - the steering column collapsed. The front wheels ended up spinning over an embankment as the Glasgow Express thundered by.

The workshop then found a permanent home at the near-derelict music hall, the Theatre Royal in Stratford, London.

Harry says, 'Stench, peeling walls, tattered seats and holes in floors greeted me as the agent opened up.' Two hours of drawings and calculations made it possible for Harry to convince the workshop to sign a contract at pounds 20 a week rental. The full company followed and Harry organised a roster enrolling all the company for restoration and repair duties.

Rehearsals, training, theatre repainting and set construction then took 15 hours every day for the first production Twelfth Night in late 1953. Success came and Joan's productions were getting press coverage. On New Year's Day, 1954, auditions were held. More than 200 applied but Joan picked Marjie Lawrence and within two weeks Greene and Marjie were 'an item'. They married in 1955.

The productions got rave notices, so did Marjie's performances and Greene's sets. The national press took notice, Bentleys and Rolls were bringing a new audience to the East End. Shows were transferring to the West End, including The Hostage, Sparrers Can't Sing, Taste of Honey, and Oh! What A Lovely War.

In 1955 Harry and Marjie starred in the UK's first commercial soap opera, the twice weekly drama Round At the Redways. The repercussions were many - a flat, a car and later a family. They were also asked to produce programme ideas and Marjie, a star of 50 films, West End shows, and recent appearances in The Bill, Poirot and Ruth Rendell's Unnatural Causes delivered a winner.

'She said, 'show viewers how we're doing up our flat'.'

Handy Round the Home became ITV's first ever hands-on DIY Show on January 4, 1957. By the '80s, he was a pioneering DIY agony uncle, appearing on more than 30 question-and-answer radio broadcasts. Then came Dream Home; an opportunity to share the screen with daughter Sarah as the cameras followed them doing up a Hampshire cottage from scratch. On the House followed and ran for four years.

And now, 46 years on from his original DIY TV concept, the 'people person' says he is 'not enamoured' with many of the shows today. 'Take Changing Rooms - my title was Room for a Change - I wrote that so there was a lot of room for hands-on DIY so the two families would compete with each other for prizes. So it's changed somewhat.

'It is a sort of light entertainment now and that is the sadness of it - people are demanding more and more hands-on DIY; they want to be shown how to make a pelmet. They want the satisfaction of completing a job.'

1923, November 21 - born in Bargoed, Jack and Una's third child.

1933 - Taught how to use tools by an uncle, a maintenance manager at Bargoed's Top Pit.

1936 - Wins National Eisteddfod Under-17s prize for drawing.

1939 - Trains as an engineering draughtsman at Newport College, before winning a scholarship to study Architecture, Interior and Illustrative Design at Cardiff Technical College and completing a course at Cardiff University.

1945 - Motorbikes to Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire to visit his first girlfriend, Gwyneth Evans.

1949 - Henry Howard Greenhouse became Harry Greene by deed poll.

1950 - Becomes art and technology master at Tredegar Grammar School, before joining Theatre Workshop and becoming an actor.

1953 - Revamps the London East End's Theatre Royal.

1954 - Meets future wife Marjie Lawrence. Stars as the Wicked Witch in Arena Theatre's The Beauty and The Beast at Cardiff Castle.

1955 - Marries Marjie. The couple star as Bill and Ruth Redway in British commercial television's first soap opera Round at the Redways.

1957, January 4 - Presents ITV's first-ever hands-on DIY show Handy Round the Home, pictured left.

1983 - Presents TV AM's Dream Home with daughter, and former Blue Peter presenter, Sarah Greene.

1986 - Presents BBC DIY show On The House

1990 - Starts creating hit shows such as DIY SOS, Changing Rooms, House Doctor and DIY Challenge.

1993 - Does DIY shows on QVC.

2003 - Publishes 23rd book, The Complete DIY Problem Solver.

1. 'SAFETY first, DIY second. There are still too many DIY accidents. There are jobs people should never tackle anyway; electrics, gas installations, plumbing.

'When I was working at Sin Lloyd's home - just before I got there she had drilled into the wall to hang a picture and did not know a mains pipe was behind the plaster and she was flooded out.

'I told her what to do; I presented her with a cable and pipe detector. She was thrilled.'

2. 'Read instructions. Statistics show ladies read instructions and follow them far better than men. That's why they are better at wallpapering, colour co-ordination, painting and, certainly, flat packs.

'In a timed shelf-building competition between critic Nina Myskov and Only Fools and Horses star Buster Merryfield, Ms Myskov spent the first 10 minutes reading the instructions, reveals Greene.

'Buster made a mess of it; he tried the second time; he tried a third time. Nina then knew exactly what to do carefully and logically - all because she had read the instructions.'
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 25, 2003
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