Pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy this rare treat: a guest review written by someone with a far more creative use of the English language than we could ever master. Sarah Coomer is one or the UK’s best grow-your-own bloggers and part of the vegetablism team that includes TVs newest bearded gardening stars, Pete and Gary from the BBCs ‘The Big Allotment Challenge’. Here she offers her own critique of that very same show…
Review: The Big Allotment Challenge
By Sarah Coomer
Before I start, it would probably be fair to say that I am probably the least qualified person to review the Big Allotment Challenge in the country in that a) I don’t own a telly which may account partly at least for the fact that I b) never watch gardening or reality type programmes which didn’t stop me from c) auditioning for the programme unsuccessfully possibly because they got wind of the tiny detail that d) I am rubbish at growing anything apart from mould, and quite apart from the fact that I e) write a blog on two of the competitors’ website. But hey, who cares about ‘informed opinion’ and ‘impartiality’ anyway? This isn’t the blimmin Hague, so get off your high horse Boutros Boutros Ghali. Onward.
If Pete and Gary had not succeeded where I had failed and secured a place in the competition, I would probably have never watched the programme, because even though I had auditioned I only usually watch BBC Four documentaries and reruns of Hamish Macbeth on Youtube (some of this statement maybe inaccurate – I haven’t been able to verify this with my source because she’s been too busy watching reruns of Hamish Macbeth on Youtube) and I also have a really appalling attention span when it comes to TV programmes. Because I watch TV relatively so little, the concept of a programme has to grab me before I even begin to watch and once I start watching it’s got about fifteen seconds to draw me in otherwise it’s back to the 1973 Stravinsky biopic narrated by Ludovic Kennedy / Pie in the Sky on ITV Player. I’d always been slightly dubious about the premise of Big Allotment Challenge since I became aware that they were advertising for contestants: I wasn’t sure that there was enough to go on to maintain an audience and I wasn’t entirely convinced that the people who were making it had any notion what was involved in keeping an allotment (which is slightly rich, I grant you, coming from me) or in fact even being a real person who didn’t actually work in Soho for a television production company. Their concept seemed to be based on a very narrow premise, that of ‘growing for a village show’ which I was slightly surprised to see borne out in the eventual programme because I just could not see how jams and chutneys and show veg and flowers would remain interesting enough week after week. My fears were ultimately at least partially realised, though I was drawn in by the contest more than I imagined I would be.
The programme’s setting in a stunning red-brick walled garden of a country house upon which the sun seems to shine about 98% of the time is undeniably appealing, and is pimped with some effective accessories: the flutey tooty soundtrack which would be right at home perching its linen clad arse in the shaded pergola of a Merchant Ivory film, the wooden framed entirely unsmashed greenhouses definitely not cobbled together from uPCV skip finds, in fact the entire lack of anything which might look as though it is made of plastic: it’s all very beautiful, and I bet I’m not the only person to have watched with a fierce envy at having the opportunity to work in such Elysian surroundings, especially considering that my current plot has all the charm of a neglected roundabout on the A68. This is a garden that Mary of Contrary fame would have approved of mightily and there isn’t an allotment in the country that looks remotely like it. Which is fine, actually, because it’s not a real allotment, it’s a television set (NB not the kind that sits in the corner of your sitting room with the chipped but sentimentally important china dog on it.)
Unfortunately though, lovely as it looks, there’s an overriding feeling that they have missed a great opportunity here – that some meedja numpty with an asymmetric fringe and an iron(ic) fist has insisted that the guiding principle of the show must be in its aesthetics and the resulting programme delivers a quaint, idealised, sanitised version of allotmenteering, based on no actual knowledge or interest in gardening whatsoever and of little substance or real value aside from a mildly diverting form of entertainment.
None of this detracts from the efforts, knowledge or skill of the contestants. Despite their virgin plots having a tilth most gardeners would kill their beloved centegenarian tortoises for (which seemed to stick in the craw of many a detractor – but you could argue that gardening skill should be judged on more than the brute strength involved in hours worth of double digging, riddling, hoeing etc, which most if not all the contestants would have had to do to create their own home plots anyway) their impressive results make it evident that the contestants must have worked hard and put an enormous amount of time and energy into cultivating the produce. But this hard work is not reflected in the programme itself. The contestants are shown pottering, muttering, wandering about, and not doing much of anything really until the timed tasks. It’s gardening lite. And where’s the passion? The pain? The delight? The dirt? The sweat? The swearing, goddammit? Okay, I know they can’t show swearing, but the editing (and I’m sure it is down to the editing) has muted everything to a polite sort of babble. Even upon winning a task the contestant’s standard reaction is generally little more than a smile, a raised eyebrow and a silently implied ‘by Jove!’, except for Ed whose air punches and ecstatic cries have earned him the rather sniffily unfavourable reputation of ‘the competitive one’. I mean really. How vulgar. Anyone would think it was a competition or something. And the normally flirty, perky Fern Britton seems to have exchanged any discernible personality for a mix and match wardrobe of pastel coloured Joules action slacks, pashminas and gilets, forever squinting into the middle distance with her head on one side as though trying to work some bathwater out of her inner ear.
As for the judges, I have no beef with that nice Jonathan and his flower arranging. Flowers are there to look lovely. If you’re really lucky you can eat them too, but that’s a bonus. And I find his accent strangely compelling. (Sowerby Bridge? Barnsley? I’m just not sure). But the thing that I really had a problem with is the show’s apparent overwhelming disregard of the main reason that most people take on an allotment in the first place – to provide themselves with the ultimate in traceable, locally sourced, sustainable produce. As far as Jim, the ‘grow’ judge, is concerned, vegetables must be blemish free, the right size, shape, colour etc and are worthless if they do not fulfil his strict criteria regardless of taste, which somehow seems to me a particularly anti-fun stance and for a major food fan like myself, downright depressing. To be fair, I enjoy a stroll around the local vegetable show tent as much as the next person (unless the next person’s Gerard Depardieu, I suppose), but I always eye the head sized onions and flawless parsnips with a certain bemusement. It seems like a bit of a throwback, like chucking liquid derris all over your garden, snugs in pubs or cladding Victorian doors in plywood. It just seems irrelevant, pointless, and outdated. I’m not denying that growing these specimens takes a lot of patience and skill, far from it, but let’s face facts: if vegetables were meant to be judged on their appearance they’d have been born wearing lipstick. No. Vegetables were put on this planet for one reason and one reason alone (unless you count making recorders out of hollowed out carrots, in which case, two): to scoff in a delightful variety of ways. Diana Rigg-alike Thane with her swingy hair and preserves are all well and good but chutney and jam are accompaniments and although as a method of preserving produce, they are fantastic and something I love to make myself, one cannot live by pickled onions alone (though to be fair, my big brother has given it a damn good try). It surely couldn’t have been that difficult to conceive challenges that judged the contestants on their broader cookery skills with their fruit and veg: soups, cakes, gratins, casseroles. Maybe it was deemed to stray too near to Bake Off territory. I don’t know.
I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed watching the programme, because I have. And I will probably watch the final even though Pete and Gary have been knocked out, because I’m genuinely interested to know who’s won, stupid shiny onions notwithstanding. But I know that for me, had they embraced the foodie heaven side of the allotment a bit more the programme would have been a whole lot more er, appetising.