Saturday 12 Jul 2014
Friday 12 February on BBC TWO
Monty Don talks to Press Information's Tony Matthews about Mastercrafts, his new series for BBC Two, and his desire to see traditional crafts firmly back on the map in modern Britain.
Driving through the Oxfordshire countryside, Monty Don reflects that, had circumstances been different, rather than talking to a television camera he might have been a thatcher working on some of England's most picturesque homes.
"I thought about it seriously," Monty says with a hint of regret. "There was someone who wanted to take me on, but it was a four-year apprenticeship and he needed me to stay for a further three years at least in order to make any money from me. I was 21 with a wife-to-be and to sign up for seven years was simply too much of a commitment."
More than 30 years later, the writer and broadcaster has a chance to see what might have been when he revisits thatching as one of the subjects of Mastercrafts, his new six-part series for BBC Two, exploring the way of life that comes with being a top craftsman. "The original idea behind the series," he says, "was that I would try my hand at all the different skills, but that proved impractical because it would take far too long, so instead we introduced people who really wanted to try. It's my one regret that I had to film it rather than do it."
Studying under some of the country's leading master craftsmen and women, three hopefuls in each programme spend six weeks learning the basics of their chosen skill, ready to compete for the chance to continue on a more formal basis their training in metal work, woodcraft, stone masonry, glass-making, thatching and weaving. Monty, meanwhile, examines the work that goes into each craft and its often forgotten history.
The attraction of traditional crafts, Monty believes, is in people doing something they love, even if the financial rewards for such extraordinary skills aren't high. Mastercrafts, he says, shows the true value of creating, for example, a chair that has taken many hours to craft compared to mass-produced pieces that can be bought cheaply in any out-of-town shopping centre. "The whole point is that the candidates must make a real-time commitment to learn their skill," he adds. "It's not just a makeover; these crafts are something you could not learn in less than three years. If they truly wish to pursue it, they face years of intensive study and practice because the standards in every case are exacting. Potentially, it's a life-changing decision."
As the series progresses, Mastercrafts reveals some fascinating human stories which simply concern the way we all live our lives. "I think we're emerging from a period in which everything has been about speed, quick money and instant gratification," says Monty. "The idea that you might spend five-to-10 years learning something became very unfashionable. But people are now beginning to realise that if you have a skill you can always apply it. And while it may not be particularly well-paid, the personal rewards in terms of a sense of satisfaction are something you just can't buy."
In the wake of the global financial crisis and looking ahead to an uncertain future of climate change, pressure on food and water supplies and other natural resources, Mastercrafts aims to tap into a resurgence of interest in traditional crafts that have been in decline for decades. In 1900, for example, there were half a million thatched roofs in Britain. That figure now stands at 30,000, leading to a decline in the number of thatchers from 50,000 to 1,000. "With thatching, the real problem has been the combine harvester," explains Monty. "It mangles the straw and makes it useless for thatching, you need a reaper binder that doesn't bend it. Intensive farming affects the supply and so straw has had to be imported which has environmental consequences. The other material used for thatching in England is reed, but many reed beds are overgrown and untended – as the supply dies so the skills go."
There are similar stories in other crafts. "I would say we retain our craft skills less than in other countries because the industrial revolution happened earlier here," says Monty. "Some related to industry, like metal working, are very well developed but over the last 25 years it has all closed down. In terms of arts and crafts, they still exist but they're dying out. There is a real risk of us losing our skills if we don't look after them but, being optimistic, this is a programme that would never have been made even two or three years ago. The fact that it's being made now shows there is still interest. It wasn't difficult to find people willing to have a go and if people are prepared to work at it then these skills can be saved."
There are no short cuts towards fulfilling Monty's ambition to see traditional crafts firmly back on the map in modern Britain, however. "The thing that links all of them is that you really can't cheat," he says. "There's no skimping on the learning process and there's no room for interpretation, you have to get it absolutely right. There's no messing with those doing the training either – they've done a hard apprenticeship and devoted their lives to their craft, as the series shows quite forcefully they are not prepared to let anyone else compromise on their standards. I think it makes for wonderfully romantic and fascinating television because there's an aura of honesty and decency to these crafts. You have to be honest with yourself for a start. If the work is not up to the highest quality, it will be ripped up and you start again."
With only one of the trainees in each programme being offered support to go on and pursue their chosen craft, these reassuringly inspiring and beautifully filmed programmes build to a tense finish. "They get really hyper-charged," agrees Monty, "After cramming so much learning into six weeks, I think by the final week everybody is exhausted, teachers and pupils alike. On the stone-carving course, the guy teaching reckoned they'd done at least the equivalent of a year's worth of work ¬– we were on the go from eight in the morning until it was too dark to film."
That must have been tough going for Monty who, in 2008, stood down from his role as the main presenter of BBC Two's Gardeners' World following a mild stroke. "I'm completely better and doing this programme was fine," he says. "I've been fully back in television and writing for a year, but it has taken this long to get anything to screen. I've done a series for Channel 4, which is due for broadcast soon, I've published a book and I'm writing another. I wasn't well and, for the first time in my life really, I took six-to-nine months off, which I'd recommend to anybody. I spent time on my farm, did a lot of gardening and I've come back to work older and wiser but just as fit."
Having experienced the various disciplines in Mastercrafts, does Monty have a particular craft he would like to try? "All of them really," he says. "I just wish they could have left me there for a week or two to join in and learn the basics, but I was too busy filming. Obviously I have a soft spot for thatching, but if I had time to spend then stone carving is the one that attracted me most. The only one that, technically, I knew I'd never be any good at in a million years was weaving. As an outsider I loved what they did, but I could only ever admire their work – all the others, I'd love to have a go."
In fact, Monty already does wood carving. "Green wood working is the one I felt closest to because I've carved bowls for years," he says. "I suppose you'd call it a hobby, although that sounds like it's belittling something. Green wood is unseasoned wood – no saws are used, it's all done with knives and spoke shaves. Unfortunately it is really hard to make a living from it because, no matter how excellent, you just can't charge enough to justify the time that an item takes to produce, the only way is to supplement your income by teaching. But I love the way they go into the wood and say 'that's the tree I want to make my chair out of'. To make a chair from a tree that's growing – it's enough to change your life."