Television Garden Makeover Programmes – Positive Or Negative?

In 1991, I was involved in building garden makeovers for a BBC Television series called Old Garden – New Gardener. Produced by Mark Kershaw of Catalyst Television programmes, it starred Geoff Hamilton and Gaye Search, with a spin-off book on the series of the same name printed in 1992.

Designs for the series were produced by Robin Williams, and I carried out the construction works as shown on the programme. The concept was to locate three main gardens which would be subjected to a complete makeover, and the chosen are was the Rugby region for various reasons.

Each garden was currently either very bland and boring, or a total wreck, with builder rubble strewn across the site. The objective of the series was to demonstrate how to go about landscaping an old garden, from the viewpoint of a new owner. Broadcast over a few weeks, the series set out to show, step by step, how these gardens could evolve and become attractive new sites.

The whole emphasis was on entertaining education, with serious matters being discussed in a very informative manner. Geoff was the consummate professional presenter, and Gaye was highly respected as a professional gardener. Every step was shown in detail, with no tomfoolery or treating the viewers as children.

I believe the series was successful, although another series was not commissioned, and I do not have the viewing figures. I do know the book was very successful!  I have discovered several copies in good bookshops since then. (Although I have a name check in the book, I cannot say that I ever gained any landscaping projects from the series. However, it gave me a TV Pedigree, that opened further doors, courtesy of the Produce, Mark Kershaw.

This connection presented another opportunity a couple of years later, when I was invited to be the landscaper for another series, this time in Birmingham, called The Terrace. It was also BCC, and was presented by Mike Reid, of Frank Butcher/East Enders fame. It was similarly serious, and included making over both indoors and the (small) rear gardens. I designed these, although ‘design’ is too grand a word to the imagination involved in laying simple paths, patios and turfing the plots.

Although Mike was famous also as a comedian, the programme was scripted to be serious and professional, as the spin-off from the series – which was shown on day-time television – was to be a series of printed features showing all elements in a step by step/Barry Bucknall way. (Barry was a famous 1950s DIY presenter on BBC)

Both of these series were presented and scripted to be serious and educational whilst being entertaining. To repeat, there was no tomfoolery (although Mike could not resist some funny asides from time to time)

Moving on a few years later, a new concept of television garden makeover programmes appeared in 1997 that set the public viewing figures soaring!  A new aspect, showing a team effort, complete with comedy, sexy presenters, an unsuspecting deserving individual who would be presented with a brand new dream garden whilst they were away from the house. Time really was of the essence, with the team desperately trying to complete the makeover before the owner/wife/husband/child/partner came home.  The programme was, of course, Ground Force!

Suddenly, television gardening became massively popular!  Viewing figures were through the roof! Spin-offs abounded, and the BBC were ecstatic with their success. The presenters, Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh became household names. The premise of the makeovers was speed, no cost, rush, rush, rush, forget horticulture or professionalism in techniques, just beat the clock! At the end of each programme, a list of expenses was shown, including X slabs @ XX prices, XX plants @ XX cost with absolutely no recognition of labour, tools @equipment, skip hire and a host of other real life expenses. The bottom line was the whole garden cost £100.00. This was 1995, not 1895!

Needless to say, professional landscapers throughout the land were incensed at the message being given to the public!  If Alan Titchmarsh can build a whole garden for £100.00 – why can’t you? Suddenly, every contractor was being challenged by their clients regarding their high costs.

The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) took issue with the BBC, who passed them on to Catalyst Television (again) who pooh pooed the whole complaints, saying how popular the programmes were with the viewers. They did not care tuppence about a bunch of disgruntled landscapers!

Eventually, I wrote to Alan (I knew him through other meetings) and explained the problems that professional landscapers were experiencing, knowing him to be a consummate professional himself. After that, at the end of future programmes, he would point out that the costs were subsidised, that skips had been donated, and that labour was not included, so a lot of feathers were smoothed over.

Professional Landscapers also realized and appreciated the great impact on the public’s conscience of having their gardens made over (I think this must be a television phrase) and indeed, after a while, the public began to realise that is was purely television, and not real life.

Many of the practices carried out during these programmes were ignored by the public, as they realized that everything was being rushed for a purpose, and corners were being cut. The shift of emphasis moved away from the low cost of the gardens, and on to the clock. Can they possibly finish in time?

And so the format became stale, and viewing figures dropped, the world moved on……..

In 2016, another new series started on the BBC, produced by Spun Gold Television, starring Charlie Dimmock, this time in the lead role as presenter, with two very personable landscapers, The Rich Brothers as her buddies.

This time, the premise of the shows is garden makeovers, only by this time, producers have decided to concentrate on the friendly banter of the Team, paying scant attention to technical information or complying with professional techniques, presenting purely Fun Time Television.

Once again, the BBC were inundated with complaints from the professional landscape community, and once again, viewing figures were paramount and all complaints were once again ignored.

Meanwhile, other excellent programmes such as Gardeners World and Alan Titchmarsh’s Love Your Garden continue to educate and enthuse the general public, and I know that many thousands of professional gardeners watch the programmes, together with owners and managers of garden centres, in the certain knowledge that if a plant or product is mentioned on either of the ‘serious’ garden programmes, they need to stand by for the rush of enquiries the following day from gardeners, keen to get hold of the latest rose/daffodil/radish.

Both programmes explain to the viewers, what they are doing, and why they are doing it, discussing horticultural practices and offering timely advice across a range of garden related matters.

Such is the power of television!  Love the programmes or hate them, they are here to stay.

If you cannot beat them, why not make use of them?  As Garden Centres look at shows to generate sales, if Landscape Designers and Landscape Contractors celebrate the recognition of the industry to potential customers, at the same time demonstrating the Real Life Legal Requirements that professional companies have to comply with, such as Contract (Design Management) Regs 2015, Waste Carriage Licences, Operating Licences and Certificates and so forth, thereby educating the public about the serious realities of life, as opposed to fun television, it is a golden opportunity to show the difference between the two.

Treat television for what it is. Entertainment. Such chasms as exist between reality and fantasy may be highlighted and treated in a positive light.