Andy Sturgeon, veteran of garden makeovers as a presenter for BBC2’s Garden Neighbours, lifts the lid on the most talked about area of gardening.
‘Ground Force’ is in its 28th series. It’s on once a day, except Sunday when it’s on twice. And there are now plans for a dedicated Ground Force Channel available on cable so you can watch it all day, every day. We’ve become makeover crazy, we just can’t get enough and the programme makers can’t churn them out fast enough. Like mobile phones, you wonder how on earth we managed without them.
But what’s it like having it done to you? Being invaded by a TV crew is initially exciting but the glamour evaporates in milliseconds and pretty soon a bunch of TV types in your home can be a real pain in the posterior. Ask anyone who works in telly whether they’d let their home be used and they’ll say categorically no. There’s a reason for this.
Take a look at the end credits of any of the programmes. There’s a cameraman, soundman, director, assistant producer, a couple of researchers, a runner maybe, a horticultural assistant, a few presenters and maybe even some real gardeners. Already you’re up to about a dozen people before anyone’s even lifted a spade. Imagine all those people stumbling through your flowerbeds and walking through your house for days or even weeks on end.
When I spent over three months working on ‘Gardening Neighbours’ for BBC2 we transformed a row of eight gardens on the outskirts of Birmingham. I’ve cleaned it up for family consumption but shortly before the end, one of the neighbours said to me, ‘‘don’t take this the wrong way but I can’t wait till you lot have gone.’’
‘Home Front Inside Out’ (or Bad Hair Day as it should be called given the hirsute presenters) causes so much chaos that they have to move the owners into a hotel. But with budgets spiralling well over 25 grand it’s easy to see why they agree.
On Ground Force - now in its 71st series - the presenters; Lord Alan of Titchmarsh, Tommy and a girl called Charlie something, genuinely do most of the work themselves and do it quite well. The landscape industry, however, is appalled at some of the short cuts employed by ‘Ground Farce’, as they call it. On top of that the idea that it can all be done in a weekend by three people gives a totally unrealistic impression to the viewing public.
Allegedly almost a third of the ‘surprised’ punters know all about it beforehand. But are they happy? Desperate to unearth a little dirt I spoke to loads of people who I know at the BBC and made countless phone calls. One man spent two years building a pergola which was destroyed in half an hour and Nelson Mandela thought Charlie was a Spice Girl but apart from that no big disasters.
A soon to be screened programme appropriately called ‘Garden Invaders’ has not been so lucky. They recently took a beautiful country garden and turned it into some sort of post-modern cat litter tray that’s been described as a ‘feline utopia’. The owners were deeply upset that their silk purse had been turned into a sow’s ear and it’s now undergoing a second makeover to turn it back and rid the countryside of bright orange scatter cushions and grey chippings.
Recently for ‘Home Front in the Garden’, Anne McKevitt (an interior designer with questionable taste and no horticultural credentials) transformed a large garden. Horticultural professionals were weeping with laughter as she tarmaced the patio, painted the house green and pink, put a huge plastic pot around the base of a mature tree and made the lawn such a bizarre shape that it became impossible to cut.
There were however some rather good elements, like a swimming pool and a wall of Perspex framing a window onto the surrounding countryside. The owners, recognising that these assets represented about fifty grand’s worth of improvements, immediately put their house on the market thus breaking their contract with the BBC and sticking two fingers up in thanks to the licence fee payers.
Carol Vorderman’s ‘Better Gardens’ were not satisfied with just building a garden for some lucky couples. For no apparent reason they gave a house away to the owners of the best garden. What had they done to deserve this? Well nothing actually.
The King of makeover, Diarmuid Gavin does incredibly well to come up with so many different and often excellent televisual designs but has occasionally been accused of designing teletubby land. In one of his early series he apparently designed a garden for two ravers in Leicestershire. One of them loved it, one of them hated it but generally they were too smashed to care.
So if the TV people come knocking at your door, be warned.