How BBC’s gardening show lost the plot years ago
I found it difficult to greet the news that Monty Don was returning to Gardeners' World, the BBC's flagship gardening television series, with huge enthusiasm.
This was nothing to do with Mr Don himself: he's a charming, erudite presenter who quite clearly has a passion for his subject. Nor was it the reports that the BBC seems to have rather peremptorily sacked Toby Buckland, who took over the role in 2008, after a stroke forced Monty Don to step down. No, the problem is the programme itself. Keen gardeners may be divided on their favourite presenter, but they appear to be united in the criticism of the format.
It is a source of fascination to me that the people who make gardening programmes seem to think that the viewers have the attention span of a behaviourally challenged three-year-old. Surely of all the varieties of viewer, gardeners — people who order their bulbs six months in advance, who plant trees they will never see mature — are by definition the most capable of sustained concentration.
Yet we're presented with two-minute chunks of information as if the producers are worried that if any more substantial mental effort is required we might lose interest and go and vandalise the allotments or spray graffiti on the garden fence.
I'm not quite sure why the BBC feels it has to put all its seeds in one pot in this way. In the 21st century, when there are so many new aspects of gardening to investigate — organic, exotics, the native flower debate, drought-tolerant — it seems unrealistic to try to cram everything into one 30-minute slot. In what is supposed to be a nation of gardeners, is there not a big enough television audience to sustain at least two gardening programmes — one for beginners and one for more experienced gardeners who would enjoy looking at a subject in greater depth?
Gardeners' World is a programme that is obviously designed — and presented — by a committee and it has all the faults that entails. New gardeners complain that some of the information is too esoteric. Experienced gardeners complain (a lot) that it is too simplistic. Many gardeners don't bother to watch at all.
This chorus of disapproval came to a head after Monty Don left. He had been the first presenter to be filmed working in a garden that was not his own — the rather characterless Berryfields. Previously, the GW garden had belonged to the main presenter — Alan Titchmarsh's garden at Barleywood in Hampshire, for example, or Geoff Hamilton's garden at Barnsdale, in Rutland. When Monty Don left, and the programme moved to a site in Birmingham called Greenacres, I completely lost the plot, if you'll excuse the pun.
Whereas Berryfields had originally been a garden of sorts, Greenacres was basically a football field turned into a set by the BBC. It had all the ingredients of a garden — greenhouse, pond, shed — but they were put together to work for a film crew, rather than as one person's vision of what a garden should be like. Like those painting by numbers kits, the right colours were there, but they didn't add up to a work of art.
At least with the return of Monty Don, the BBC is going back to the old format of presenter-with-garden, which will give us all a chance to see what the Lord of Cord has done in his own patch in Herefordshire. Rachel de Thame is rejoining the team of presenters, which will still include Joe Swift and Carol Klein. But I suspect that the format will be as fragmented and unsatisfying as ever. A cheerful woman at the BBC press office told me: “We thought they were the best team to take the programme forwards.” Or backwards.