80 Years of Gardening Programmes
on the BBC
9 May 1931 was arguably the date on which the BBC discovered how to talk to its audience. From the BBC's inception in the 1920s, the idea of the 'talk' was one of the Corporations' regular features. An expert would address the audience, reading formally from a script, but few 'real' people ever got behind the microphone.
Then, the mould was broken, with the arrival of C.H. Middleton. Selected from a list of potential gardening broadcasters, supplied to the BBC by the Royal Horticultural Society, this gently spoken son of a Northamptonshire gardener threw out broadcasting convention, and dared to speak from notes alone.
'Mr. Middleton', as he was known on air, got the full support of BBC management, although in the early years he did provide a script as back up. Ultimately even this was seen as unnecessary, when it became clear that Mr. Middleton was a broadcasting natural. A memo at the time from Mr. Fielden of the BBC General Talks Department is revealing:
'There really is no need for you to submit a manuscript every time you talk, so long as you have sufficient notes and can extemporize - I would be happy if you would endeavour to tell and not read your garden talks'.
This he did with relish. His first talk set the tone that would become familiar for the next fifteen years: 'Good afternoon. Well, it's not much of a day for gardening, is it?'.
Early gardening programmes
The early years of radio broadcasting were very much a learning experience for all concerned. In the case of gardening in the pre-Middleton era, much had been learned about what worked on air, and what did not, from a series of talks given at varying intervals and different times of day, by the likes of Vita Sackville West, and Marion Cran. Their limited success seemed to stem as much from their alienating tone and delivery than simply irregular scheduling.
Cran referred constantly to her gardens at Steep Hill Cottage, near Farnham in Surrey, and at Coggers in the village of Benenden in Kent. She pontificated on the place of the British garden in national life, whilst offering fewer practical tips for gardeners than Middleton. What was offered inevitably referred to soil and weather conditions in the south. With the opening of more regional output, from stations across the country, listeners began to demand more. She wrote prolifically on gardening though, often strongly linked with her personal life. 'The Story of My Ruin' (1924), told the story of her garden at Benenden at the time of the break-up of her second marriage.
Mr. Middleton offered a more varied gardening diet. What was coming into bloom, the likely weather conditions, practical tips on controlling pests, these were typical fare in his weekly broadcasts. All were presented in a seemingly effortless fashion.
This down to earth approach lent itself to open communication with the audience. For example, the question of when Mr. Middleton's In Your Garden programme was to be heard, was of great to concern to him in the early days. Was it to be Fridays at 19.10 or Sundays at 14.00? Mr. Middleton himself broadcast a message to his listeners asking which time they preferred:
"There does not seem a better way of finding out what your wishes are, whether you regard me as a stimulation for the weekend's gardening, or to send you off to sleep after Sunday lunch. The BBC want to please you and I am quite prepared to do what I'm told as far as I can and to give you what you want".
7009 letters preferred Sunday, 2950 Friday, and 66 liked Mr Middleton so much they answered 'for either or any time'.
WW2 and gardening
By the outbreak of war in 1939, Mr. Middleton was a household name and was approached by the Minstry of Food to front their Dig For Victory campaign. The appeal of gardening suddenly widened as listeners, even without their own gardens, were encouraged to 'grow their own' in allotments, waste ground and even parks. It was a question of national survival, but the advice still came in the familiar accessible form. What did change was the setting of the gardening talks. Mr. Middleton moved from the studio to a vegetable garden near The Langham Hotel in Cavendish Place, central London, where his advice was to be heard live on location. There was one other change. The weather report was strangely absent for the duration of the war, essential information for gardeners of course, but also very useful for enemy aircraft planning a raid.
Television and gardening seem natural partners, and Mr. Middleton realised this within the first year of the new medium starting in the UK. On 15 May 1937 Mr Middleton begin to lay out a special plot for TV in the grounds of Alexandra Palace in north London.
Television transmission ceased during the war, but bounced back when another gardening legend was born. Percy Thrower continued the Middleton legacy, taking very much the same practical and friendly approach with his Gardening Club series. Rarely did the programme stretch to outside locations. Instead, an improvised studio set, complete with greenhouse was preferred, constructed in a decaying cinema converted for television at Gosta Green in Birmingham.
The Blue Peter garden
By the end of the 1960's Thrower moved over to the newly established Gardeners' World, a BBC stalwort that remains remarkably unchanged in its aim to this day. But it's his role as the children's gardener in Blue Peter that extended the appeal of gardening to another generation. In 1974 he established the Blue Peter garden, complete with a greenhouse and simple plan of flowerbeds for straightforward cultivation. It survived two bouts of vandalism, in 1978 and 1983, but always sprang back. The Italian sunken garden brought a new lease of life following the first attack, and from the 1990s the garden has featured as a regular summer backdrop on the BBC's children's channels.
Since the early days of radio and television, gardening has been the platform for the launch of many successful broadcasting careers, and new programme formats have emerged through the medium. Alan Titchmarsh made his debut on the long running Nationwide, clearing greenfly from a garden in Margate in 1979, and Ground Force triggered a swathe of lifestyle garden and design shows from the early 1990s.
Always adapting, always changing, gardening programmes on the BBC have enjoyed an ongoing appeal for countless generations. Perhaps the early realisation that real people, talking about what they really believe in, has sustained gardening on the BBC for the past 80 years.