Celebrities… Get Them Out of Here

It’s time for programme-makers to ditch celebrities, and instead start creating TV shows around folk who garden in the real world.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, September 2008.

Eavesdropping can be a depressing business – as I found out recently when overhearing this: ‘Must have rugged good looks, sex appeal, be 10 years younger than our average female viewer profile, and be male.’ I’m paraphrasing – the rest is too nauseating to repeat – but any guesses as to what this list of requirements might have been drawn up for? Well, there’s a hint that it’s to do with television, but ‘rugged good looks’ and ‘sex appeal’ could cover a broad church – it might be anything from cookery to antiques to fast cars. Not gardening, surely?

Peter Woollam in Hough Garden, his organic ornamental kitchen garden near Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

Thoughtful organic gardeners such as Peter Woollam know only too well that vibrant, productive gardens, unlike those on television, aren’t made in a weekend. © Colin Leftley.

At the time of writing [July 2008], the search was on for a new lead presenter for the BBC television programme Gardeners’ World (GW). If the urgent need for us all to garden in a more earth-friendly, organic way were to generate as much media coverage as this tedious saga, the world would truly be a better place. But all the brouhaha over who will ‘front’ GW has very little to do with gardening – and a lot to do with media careers and egos.

My snippet from the earwigged conversation gives a flavour of just how deeply rooted in the cult of celebrity our gardening programme-makers have become. This is all about grabbing audience share, rather than good old down-to-earth gardening – organic or otherwise. One celebrity-addicted magazine has even run a reader ‘poll’ to try to influence the makers of GW in their decision, while much of the vacuous tittle-tattle in the press tents at summer gardening shows focused, unhealthily, on ‘who will it be?’ It’s as if we should all be gripping our potting benches, lest we faint at hearing that some unranked outsider has got the job.

If ever there was a case of misplaced priorities, this is it. With the world facing environmental meltdown, the question we should all be asking, whether we’re the producer of GW or one of those ‘average female viewers’, is not which photogenic hunk should get the job, but whether we need celebrities at all. The problem with gardening celebrities is that they very soon become divorced from real day-to-day gardening. But it’s unglamorous, down-to-earth gardening that’s going to enable us, collectively, to deliver tangible environmental benefits that can begin to address global threats like climate change. With research from Garden Organic (HDRA) showing that organic gardeners have a carbon footprint a third below the national average, the last thing our gardening nation needs is yet another fossil fuel-guzzling TV presenter stomping their carbon bootprints across the land.

Jenny Wong, Bryan Dickinson and their son Cai in the garden at Ynys Uchaf.

At 224m (800ft) above sea level, the North Wales organic garden of Jenny, Cai and Bryan, at Ynys Uchaf, has valuable lessons for gardeners at all altitudes – and there’s ample room for a film crew…

Ah yes, you might be thinking, but just imagine the progress we might make in advancing earth-friendly gardening if the new lead presenter of GW is an organic gardener. And, of course, the last one did espouse organic growing admirably, but he paid a price for it, being regularly pilloried in the press. And here’s the real Achilles’ heel of being a gardening celebrity: you suddenly find yourself largely unable to say what you actually think, quickly learning the doublespeak that comes with the job. Why? To avoid upsetting folk, of course, but most especially to avoid rocking the wheelbarrow of the powerful gardening industry.

Any celebrity daring to float such radical ideas as gardening without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, saving your own seeds and swapping cuttings, supporting small, independent nurseries over glitzy garden centres, or simply buying less, is guaranteed a bumpy ride. Wonderful as it would be to think that GW might select someone willing to explore openly and honestly, week in and week out, the true environmental cost of our gardening – and how we can lighten the planetary load – it just ain’t gonna happen. Tell an industry intent on selling us ever more gardening gadgets that it’s possible to garden, organically, with remarkably few bought resources, while simultaneously cutting our carbon footprint, and it soon starts throwing the latest useless widgets from its pram.

If high-profile celebrity gardeners can’t cut the environmental mustard, who can? In a world where we need to recognise the folly of ‘unlimited growth’, even down at the seemingly benign garden centre, just who is going to enthuse us to harness the power of gardening, organically, as a force for environmental good? How about you? Your neighbour, perhaps, or your friends down on the allotment?

Bryan Dickinson, Jenny Wong and son Cai lifting potatoes in the organic garden at Ynys Uchaf.

Unlike in a TV garden, there’s no team of gardeners tending the vegetable beds here at Ynys Uchaf, apart from Cai, Jenny and Bryan, who are all hands-on when it comes to lifting the spuds.

Don’t panic. I’m not suggesting you acquire a one-way ticket to celebritydom; quite the reverse. What we need to do, and what gardening programme-makers in particular need to do, pronto, is ditch celebrities: shred ’em, compost them, use them as mulch, I really don’t care – just get them off our screens. Let them get back to their own plots and do some real gardening, rather than be hauled off each week to a distant TV garden that no one really owns. Let them have a rest from being vilified for even daring to mention the ‘o’-word on prime-time TV, or for hinting that not all in the gardening world is as green as it seems.

You could do a much better job, and all from the comfort of your own garden or allotment. You won’t be dragged away from home during the busy summer gardening season to attend this or that flower show, won’t be asked to cut the ribbon at the latest out-of-town garden centre, or (you might regret this one) be asked to put your name – for a hefty fee – to a range of garden tools. You won’t be jetting around the country, or sailing off into the sunset leading a carbon-belching cruise. The only requirement of you is that you are a keen, thoughtful gardener, one that knows instinctively, and from experience, that gardens are not made in a weekend, and that getting an allotment into shape takes six months, not 60 minutes.

“The last thing our gardening nation needs is yet another fossil fuel-guzzling TV presenter stomping their carbon bootprints across the land”

It will also help the programme-makers enormously if you have an awareness of how gardening interacts with the world around you, can show a basic understanding of issues such as climate change, and realise that solutions to gardening ‘problems’ rarely, if ever, come in spray bottles. That should give the producers plenty of scope; it covers just about every reader of Organic Gardening. The one bit of the deal you might have sleepless nights over is exactly how the production team will get all their filming equipment into your 1.8 by 2.5m (6 by 8ft) greenhouse. And you will, of course, have to give up a couple of days each week in order for your passion for organic gardening to be broadcast to the nation.

Peter Woollam tending his beds of flowers and vegetables at Hough Garden, near Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

Peter Woollam’s Hough Garden, near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, is constantly evolving and is buzzing with earth-friendly gardening ideas just ripe for broadcasting… © Colin Leftley.

Why not? Would it really be such a bad thing if our gardening programmes, both television and radio, were reassembled around real, hands-on gardeners like you? By pruning out celebrity, we could really start to explore how gardening can be a positive environmental force. You would still be the star of the show, but you wouldn’t be prone to doublespeak, weighing up your future career prospects before uttering each sentence. You could tell it, and show it, how it is.

Pumpkins growing in the compost-filled beds at Hough Garden.

Hough Garden’s abundance relies on hard work, not ‘rugged good looks’.

Crucially, you would be gardening on a scale that most people can relate to, in your own garden, the patch you yourself love and nurture. Those watching, or listening, would be inspired by the personal, the modest, the intimate – the encouragingly can-doable.

You wouldn’t need rugged good looks or sex appeal for this job, just some good and honest dirt under your nails.

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