Arthur Taylor on the success of GTV’s gardening programme

The thing about Granada, and I don’t know where it came from, but it was drummed into everybody without it being drummed in, if you know what I mean, it was just in the air, was that Granada would make programmes that would be better than anybody else’s, because they were more interesting, because they would have a different angle. And I think that’s what happened. With the gardening thing, again, one thing leads to another. One of the programmes, it wasn’t mine, somebody else invented it but I loved doing whenever I got the chance, was a thing called Down to Earth, which I think had started as a response to pressure from the National Farmers Union in our area, saying, “You’re always doing urban stuff and you do have rural land in Granadaland, do something about it.” So I think it might have been Steve Morrison who started it. And at some stage I came in and did one of the series and said, “Look…” – in those days you could bargain a bit, you know, if you were told to do something you didn’t necessarily have to do it – and I said, “I’ll do it, but only if I can widen it. Farming is wonderful, and it’s very interesting and fine, fine, fine – but I need to do conservation, gardening, the whole outdoor thing to make it much more interesting.” So they said, “Okay.” And like I say, I did it whenever I could because I just love getting out and about in the countryside and meeting experts of one sort or another, ornithologists, farmers, conservationists. And we put a tiny gardening segment in because I discovered that the very famous BBC radio programme, Gardener’s World, had actually started out in an upstairs room in a pub in Ashton, which is part of our territory. And two of the people who were involved in the talkers as it were, one was Professor Alan Gemmell who’s Professor of Botany at a university somewhere, and a guy called Bill Sowerbutts, who was a hands on nurseryman. And it was a nicely structured thing because it was a sort of combative thing; the academic versus the gardener, and sometimes they had rows, and so on and so forth. And I decided – I don’t know, was it the 40th anniversary or something? – to recreate this, because I thought it was a very worthy programme. It’s still going, of course. So we got Alan and Bill in, and Bill was not particularly happy and not particularly good, but Alan I thought was very good. So we got him to do bits and pieces here and there within Down to Earth about gardens. So that was one thing.

And then Channel 4 was hovering on the horizon in 1980 – started in 1982 – and I get called into Scott’s office and he’s very excited. He’s been dancing with a lady called Naomi Sargant, who is a newly commissioned commissioning editor at Channel 4, and Mike has been explaining to her how he doesn’t know how to prune roses, and she said to him she’s very interested in gardening, what about a series on gardening? So Mike comes to me and says, “Do you want to do a series on gardening?” And I said, “No, I don’t! I really do not want to do a series on gardening. I am not interested. I’m not that interested in gardening.” And he said, “Well, give it a go.” He said, “You’re it. You’re the only one who’s got any experience.” I didn’t have any experience at all! “The other thing is I want it to be connected to the Royal Horticultural Society. So I think the best thing to do is to buy a plot of land in Salford and get these gardeners from the RHS to come up to Salford.” So I said, “Give me some time to find out what’s what.” So I went down to London to meet the posh people who were in charge of the RHS and there were a complete waste of time. Complete waste time. They were very arrogant, retired colonels and posh ladies and so on and so forth. Weren’t interested in television at all. They said, “You’d better go to the garden down at Wisley.” So I went to the garden, and the guy in charge there was not very helpful. He was more interested in taxonomy and plant collecting in the world than hands-on gardening. But he introduced me to a man called John Main who was the curator at Wisley. And John was – is – Cumbrian, very down to earth, wonderful sense of humour, and we got on like a house on fire straight away. Straight away. So I discussed the problem with him and he said, “The idea is totally stupid. Totally stupid. These people don’t know what they’re talking about. Does he realise that if you start a garden there is nothing there for the first six months? So it’s not going to make very good television, is it.” I said, “No, John.” And he took me around the whole garden, and it’s huge. Very beautiful and has everything you possibly need for a gardening series. And there were people – they call them ‘superintendents’, they’re like the bosses of departments, you know, so there was Bertie Doe vegetables, and Sid Love flowers, and so on and so forth. All these people already were performers, because they gave lectures to members and demonstrations out in the field. “This is how you grow turnips,” you know? So all we had to do, it dawned on me, was turn the camera on them and there it was.

So I went back to Scott and said, “Well, it’s kind of interesting but it has to be at Wisley.” So he said, “Oh, alright then, alright then. It’ll be very expensive.” I said, “Well, it would be the best way to do it. But we still can’t do it because there isn’t a director in the house who can do this.” And he said, “Well, it just so happens that we’re interviewing this guy called Neil Cleminson, who’s come to us from the BBC Natural History Unit. He might be your man.” And of course he was. I mean, he’s a wonderful, wonderful director, sometimes difficult to work with, terrific director, nice guy, so off we went. In 1981, before Channel 4 actually opened, we made 12 programmes – one per month – showing everything, really. Gardening stuff. And we made a compilation. Oh, we got… who was the actress who presented it? Hannah Gordon. She didn’t actually have to do much, lovely lady, but we filmed her at the beginning and that was it. She was filmed at the beginning, and she did the voiceovers, so we called her up to Manchester to do the voiceovers. And we did this compilation thing and showed it at Golden Square to the gardening press with Naomi Sargant there, and the press was quite astonishing, the press stood up and applauded at the end of this half hour programme, whereupon Naomi gets up and gives a hysterical talk saying, “This wasn’t the programme that I commissioned, it’s a pile of rubbish, I don’t want to do anything.” She’d just flown back from Japan, she was jetlagged and off her head, and she was a strange lady anyway. So I took her to one side – took her away – and said, “Well, you’re stuck with it. We’ve got 12 programmes to show.” And blow me, they start showing the series and suddenly they find… it’s after Brookside, or Countdown, and it’s like fifth in the top 10. And so Naomi, who said the programme was a pile of rubbish, is now going around lecturing saying how she commissioned this wonderful series and she knew instinctively how good it was. Anyway, so that went on, we did four years. So the first year there were 12 programmes, the second year we repeated the original 12 and put in 12 new ones, so by the time we got to the final bit we were showing a programme a week. And then we did… it was a revelation to me. I didn’t want to do it, as I say, and I didn’t think I’d be interested, but I was absolutely captivated.

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