As beginnings go, it was less than auspicious. Gardeners’ World was created to show off the amazing colour technology the BBC had invested in, launched in 1967 on BBC2.
David Attenborough, then the channel’s controller, had decided that snooker and flowers were the ideal subjects to wow the handful of people lucky enough to own a colour TV set.
The very first programme was broadcast from the Oxford Botanical Gardens. The plan was to feature the dazzling blue tropical water lilies in the glasshouses.
But they are night-flowering and close at 10am. By the time the crew were ready the lilies had shut and they had to film an exotic-looking loofah tree instead.
But from such tiny acorns mighty oaks can grow. Now celebrating its 50th year, Gardeners’ World has become part of the fabric of many British families’ lives.
The opening few bars of the theme tune, Morning Light, are enough to gather viewers together on their Friday evening sofas in a way few programmes can match.
For them, Monty Don’s warm encouragement to prune the clematis or turn the compost is as much a start to the weekend as opening a bottle of wine.
There’s only a small handful of factual TV programmes with a longer pedigree. The Sky At Night, Songs Of Praise and Blue Peter are among those that beat Gardeners’ World for longevity, and none has such a large audience.
Its viewing figures may not match the heady heights of 4 million it reached in the late 1990s, but back then Britain only had five channels.
This year, between 2.5 million and 3 million have been tuning into it on BBC2 on a weekly basis.
There’s no mystery as to why it has survived so long, according to its oldest surviving main presenter Peter Seabrook, 81. ‘It’s simple – 12 million people garden in the UK and everybody loves plants. If you give somebody a bunch of flowers, they smile,’ he says.
Few countries in the world have such a deep-rooted attachment to gardening and their gardens.
‘People realise this is the one place they can express themselves personally,’ says current co-presenter Carol Klein, 71. ‘Nobody tells you what to do in your garden. And it’s away from technology, concrete and Tarmac.’
At its best, Gardeners’ World has been the ultimate Reithian programme – ‘informing, educating and entertaining’ in the manner established by former BBC director-general Lord Reith in the 1920s – managing to both hold nervous first-time gardeners’ hands as well as inspiring those with green fingers on to greater heights.
It has also, however, suffered from fallow periods, when the balance between winning new viewers and keeping the old guard happy has been misjudged.
And controversy has occasionally reared its head like ground elder in a bed of pansies. Possibly the greatest scandal involved Percy Thrower, its first presenter. A former royal gardener who’d served at Windsor Castle, he was a household name even before he fronted Gardeners’ World.
With pipe clenched in hand, he would broadcast in collar, tie and waistcoat, dispensing no-nonsense advice like a friendly schoolmaster. If he was being particularly casual, he might swap the waistcoat for a knitted pullover.
He exuded authority. ‘To me, as a young lad, he was a god,’ recalls Alan Titchmarsh, who not only grew up watching him on the television but ended up editing the books he wrote.
‘That voice, which I can still hear now, was wonderful: measured and steady. He had great charisma. Nowadays his delivery would probably come across as quite mannered, but he had a great way with the camera and a great way of engaging the viewer.’
Producers were wonderstruck about his internal stopwatch. They would tell him, for instance, that he had 2 minutes 47 seconds to talk about delphiniums. Percy would explain exactly how to plant and nurture this gorgeous flower, and finish the final word of his final sentence at exactly 2 minutes 47 seconds – all without a script.
INSIDE THE GARDENERS’ WORLD
When: 1968-1976 Where: The Magnolias, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire Key trends: Manicured lawns, formal bedding and houseplants Percy had designed and built his house, with its acre of garden, in 1963.
Having been a parks superintendent, he was fond of formal bedding schemes and manicured lawns and he encouraged children to garden by building the Blue Peter garden in 1974. He pushed the use of chemicals to keep down pests, which would make him out of step with later presenters who promoted organic gardening. But he loved houseplants.
‘Everyone grows them these days, or so it seems, and many are excellent for the sun lounge, the modern equivalent of the Victorian conservatory,’ he said. ‘We feature the plants in my sun lounge from time to time on Gardeners’ World, including a lemon tree which flowers and fruits as if in its sunny homeland.’ Aware that he was no expert on growing vegetables, he formed a double act with the more down-to-earth Arthur Billitt at his garden at Clack’s Farm.
When: 1969-1982 Where: Clack’s Farm, near Ombersley, Worcestershire Key trends: Large beds with straight rows of vegetables During the Percy Thrower era, this was the second base from which Arthur, a fruit and veg specialist, would present.
When: 1979-1996 Where: Barnsdale, near Oakham in Rutland Key trends: Organic gardening, friendly practical advice With his down-to-earth style Geoff became known as ‘The People’s Gardener’.
He had a popular touch and was full of ideas for gardening on a budget, the most popular being the £2-a-week garden in which Geoff used polythene from his dry cleaning to make cold frames and foil trays from a Chinese takeaway for seedlings. He shared his failures as well as his successes and encouraged people to experiment and just get out and have a go. He was a pioneering figure in organic gardening.
In 1983, when he was established as the main presenter, he bought a property a mile away from Barnsdale called The Grange, with five acres of land. This became ‘Barnsdale 2’. The five acres were split into small plots, allowing Geoff to show it was possible to create great gardens in tight spaces.
‘It’s like many building plots I know,’ he told viewers at the time. ‘It’s heavy, sticky mud liberally garnished with builders’ rubble. But I guarantee that if you follow us programme by programme then you too will have a beautiful garden.’
When: 1996-2002 Where: Barleywood, near Alton in Hampshire Key trends: Decking, multicoloured fences and ornamental grasses Alan presented from his garden, where he’d lived for 14 years. It was a beauty, with a seaside garden, a pond and a butterfly meadow, but he’ll forever be associated with the craze for decking and blue fencing after adding them to an area of his garden.
‘The Americans had used decking for centuries but we were still using crazy paving,’ he says. ‘It’s dreadful, you trip over it and it looks a mess. And before the 1990s fences were painted in orange wood preservative. Coloured paints were coming in and I thought I’d give them a go. But I got it in the neck for blue fences and decking. They’re rather passé now.’