Gardening programme content let down by gardening programme form

This post originally appeared on my personal website.

As a keen gardener I've recently enjoyed both the Great British Garden Revival and—coming round to it eventually—the Big Allotment Challenge, both of which are now in their second series. So it made my heart sink to read Sam Wollaston's somewhat scathing review of the latter, and I tried to work out how to square that review with what I felt I was getting out of them both.

Both programmes provided a wealth what anyone with the slightest interest in gardening needs: tales from the trenches, useful tips, novelties, inspiration, ideas. In this sense, their content was rich and plentiful. But both programmes also show a paucity of imagination when it comes to the forms which programmes need to have, before they will be successfully commissioned.

The BAC was a case in point, for missing the point. Certainly there's some (usually good natured) competitiveness in gardening, but to turn allotment management—a matter of community, sharing skills and providing food sovereignty—into a standard-format TV competition is to hammer a square peg into a round hole: each nuanced corner gets scraped off in the process. Gertrude Jekyll herself says of growing pansies for show:

… The poor Pansies have single blooms laid flat on white papers, and are only approved if they will lie quite flat and show an outline of a perfect circle. All that is most beautiful in a Pansy, the wing-like curves, the waved or slightly fluted radiations, the scarcely perceptible undulation of surface that displays to perfection the admirable delicacy of velvety texture; all the little tender tricks and ways that make the Pansy one of the best-loved of garden flowers; all this is overlooked, and not only passively overlooked, but overtly contemned. The show-pansy judge appears to have no eye, or brain, or heart, but to have in their place a pair of compasses with which to describe a circle! All idea of garden delight seems to be excluded, as this kind of judging appeals to no recognition of beauty for beauty's sake, but to hard systems of measurement and rigid arrangement and computation that one would think more applicable to astronomy or geometry than to any matter relating to horticulture.

Whether you agree with the extremeness of her statements, you can surely accept that allotments are about far more than show vegetables, flower arrangement skills and being able to cook cold gazpacho soup. Certainly for me, the defining moment in the show, and one which its production team perhaps barely noticed, was when Rekha discovered lily beetles devouring her own crop. What did she do? Immediately warn Lena, her apparent competitor, who presumably warned others in turn. Because when push comes to shove, in the human heart allotment wins out over challenge any day.

In terms of feeling artificial, the form of the GBGR was even worse. Each week a different television presenter pretended to be on some kind of fabricated "campaign" to reintroduce a particular. What did this campaign consist of, you might think? Well, it was largely indistinguishable from making your standard Reithian-remit TV programme: some practical information, some historical stories, some field work, some hamfisted involvement of the public. They ended up with remarkably good content—down to the excellent and knowledgeable presenters, and featured guests who clearly loved their work—bent awkwardly over the anvil of its format.

Anyone who's actually run a real campaign, a campaign for change, for a goal, for something that really matters, would quite reasonably take it as insulting to hear someone who's just half-heartedly stuck flowers under the noses of a few hundred inhabitants of one or other massive UK city pretending that their fictitious campaign, which is to last no longer than half an hour of television, was "really taking off", when it was actually a few minutes of viewing time away from its end. And yet the series continued to cringemakingly co-opt the (presumably fashionable now?) vocabulary of real, genuine campaigning, heartlessly stripping it of its meaning as it did so.

What does all this mean for Sam Wollaston's review? Well, there was a reason why his review felt unfair; I can't merely howl the fan's usual howl that it was unfair; nor was it that he might as well have just linked to his review of last year's series, where he even makes the same joke about rakes: it was that the disparity set up between the premised form and the eventual content was unfair. The programme commissioners had used a populist format to get reviewers like Wollaston interested in content that quite reasonably he wasn't interested in. They had drawn reviewers in with the challenge form, and the all-important, loveable, inspiring allotment content couldn't escape the net of its format's mediocrity.

There's clearly a thirst for gardening programmes in the UK, beyond the historical offering of GQT and Gardeners' World. It's a thirst for true stories; for trials, tribulations and triumphs; for human relationships and interactions; for illustration of how people are able, in spite of everything, to take part in that weird, eerie alchemy that is each season's growth of bountiful, colourful, flavoursome produce. But it's going to take smarter producers, and commissioning editors with more clarity of vision, before such a programme makes its way onto our screens. In the mean time we'll strip off unwelcome format-pith, to get at the sweet content-fruit hidden underneath: but such slim pickings are no way to genuinely bring about a revival of gardening in the UK.