It's funny how people like to hark back to the 'good old days', when prices were cheaper, life was simpler, and generally things were better. In fact if you could go back in a time machine you would find that yes, prices were cheaper but wages were lower, life was simpler with no mobile phone/internet/digital TV, and things for most people were as hard or even harder than they are today. We love to reminisce...
A lot of things in gardening are about reminiscence; traditional techniques are making a comeback (things like planting in autumn instead of spring/summer), there is a lot of interest in old gardens and their restoration, and conservation groups are busy saving old varieties of garden plants from extinction.
Start a conversation about any TV show and sooner or later someone will say that things are being 'dumbed down', especially factual programmes, shows like Gardener's World. I'll be honest, I don't watch Gardener's World any more; for me things were much better with Geoff Hamilton, and went down hill during Alan Titchmarsh's tenure as lead presenter. The thing is that time can play tricks on you, so it's important to separate reality from impression. I recently found old episodes of Gardener's World on Youtube, and watching a couple gave me and idea- I should compare an old show with Geoff Hamilton and a new show with Monty Don and see if I can see what it is that I don't like about the new shows, if, of course, I don't find that actually the old style Gardener's World is no different from the modern show. I picked two episodes at random, one from 1991 and one from 2013.
The 1991 show, presented by Geoff Hamilton featured:
- garden construction
- plant maintenance (pruning etc)
- lawn care
- pests and disease advice (including a feature about Japanese Knotweed
- a visit to the garden of a very uncomfortable Carol Klein (her first TV appearance!)
- gardening under glass (Integrated Pest Management (IPM), plant maintenance, Fuchsia propagation and training
By comparison the 2013 show, presented by Monty Don, featured:
- planting Clematis
- a garden visit
- planting brassicas
- a 'jobs for the weekend' section (sowing sweet peas and wallflowers, and weeding with a hoe)
- tulips in the garden
- another garden visit (this time to Holland, with more tulips!)
- sowing hardy annuals
I noted 23 plants named in the half hour show, and identified 18 hints and tips.
What struck me was that there was more packed into the 1991 show, and it covered a very wide variety of garden tasks compared to the 2013 show, which I reckon was probably filmed a little later in the year, but definitely still in spring.
The other thing that struck me was the general style of the show. The 1991 show was pretty basic, with presenters talking to the camera or shots of the plant/task in question- this might have been due to technical differences in the TV filming technology of the time. By comparison the 2013 show was much more advanced in it's filming style, and had been 'padded' in several places with clips of no real significance; let's take, for example, a 30 second clip of Monty picking up a tray of plants and walking to the place where he's going to plant them, all set to an intrusive backing tune. Why does the audience of a practical gardening programme need to see a man walk from one place to another? The camera work was excellent but the section was pointless. This 'padding' happened a few times in the show.
There was also significant chunks of show given over to presenters, not just Monty, getting all poetic and contemplative over the garden they were in. In the second garden visit, Rachel de Thame spoke at length with her mother about a trip they had made over 40 years ago to visit a garden in Holland (apologies, I forget which). Actual airtime was given over to a conversation between them about how much Rachel has grown in 40 years! Fair enough, we all have conversations like this but they are actually private conversations, not because they contain dark secrets but because they are only relevant to the people concerned.
Despite the fact that in real terms the old Gardener's World format only managed to slip in a few more plants and tips than the new format show there was a marked difference in the overall feel. Most notable was that the show now seems to be more about the relationships between the presenters and the gardens than between the viewer and what they are seeing. The presenting team on the 2013 show (including Carol Klein who has come out of her shell since the 1991 show) seemed keen to show off their own poetic interpretations of gardens and gardening than getting down to some 'nitty gritty' horticulture. In some ways Monty Don has an excuse; in his own words "I was – am – an amateur gardener and a professional writer...” (not sure which interview this quote is from).
All in all I don't think my fond memories of the Geoff Hamilton era are misplaced; the very 'down to earth' presenting style, most notably with Geoff but also with the rest of the team, was in keeping with gardening itself. Likewise the only egos in the show belonged to the plants and the gardens which, through excellent camera work, and careful, accurate and never patronising explanation, were brought to life for the viewer. I still remember hearing about the sudden death of Geoff Hamilton, the man who had instilled the thrill of gardening in me. My parents and I sat in silence for Geoff's last ever show, and somehow, even then, I knew that gardening TV would never be the same for me. For many gardeners up and down the country, these words from Alan Titchmarsh's tribute at the beginning of Geoff's last episode of Gardener's World are still fresh, poignant and above all, still true.
“When Geoff Hamilton died, earlier this week, television viewers all over the country must have felt they've lost a great friend. For 17 years, on a Friday night, they'd watched him sowing and planting, often in his own garden at Barnsdale, and whether they were keen gardeners or novices they couldn't have failed to have been impressed by his easy going manner, his friendly approach, and his sheer passion for gardening.” Alan Titchmarsh, August 1996.