Hail storms and beer cans: the real Big Allotment Challenge
The current series on BBC2 ‘The Big Allotment Challenge’ (BAC) has attracted quite a bit of comment from plot holders on my site in between the digging and planting of potatoes etc over the Easter weekend (traditionally potatoes are planted on Good Friday. I’m running a somewhat behind). There is a fair amount of division about how realistic it is between those who aren’t at all impressed by this new commodification of allotments as a place for yet more competition and those who reckon its actually pretty realistic as many allotmenteers are really keen on horticultural shows and competitions of all kinds. Lets face it ‘biggest leek’ and ‘biggest pumpkin in show’ competitions and associated skulduggery are the stuff of legend and the source of much comedy over the years. In that sense the the BAC is part of a venerable tradition. Opponents of this view see this as yet another example of the way in which TV undermines the solidarity and conviviality of seed swapping, surplus crop sharing, cultivation tips, lending of tools and the gifting of spare soft fruit bushes and the like. Mutuality, co-operation and harmony all round.
Neither image, (or perhaps both) are entirely accurate of course, but from one viewing, several things certainly strike me. For a start the BAC isn’t actually on an allotment. Its in a fancy Victorian walled garden somewhere in rural Oxfordshire. So, no deer break in to wreak havoc, beer cans and condoms don’t get chucked over the fence, the neighbours haven’t let their dandelions go to seed and nobody’s small child is running ever so slightly wild and failing to recognise those newly planted out seedlings for what they are. Also… it never rains (except when it needs to I suppose), its always sunny, everybody hugs each other a lot (I’ve had an allotment for well over 30 years and I’ve never seen that behaviour!) the fruit and veg all come up and are perfect (dream on…) and most amazing of all, the plots are all dug and the soil is perfect. Paradise on Earth in other words. Made for TV even.
For a moment I was even regretting having turned down the offer of being one of the participants when they were trawling allotment sites for potential participants a year or so ago. But not really. My friend Robert was hired as an adviser. He only lasted one programme before resigning. Amongst the hilarious episodes he retells were the assumption by the production team that black currants could simply be picked and turned into something delicious after one season. When it was pointed out that this was impossible and the plants need several years to become established before they produced fruit in any quantity, the production company simply went down the local garden centre and bought a whole lot and put the in the ground. The participants – all clearly selected to tick some demographic or socio-cultural box – by and large don’t live anywhere near the site. The production team seemed to think a fortnightly visit to tend the produce would be fine. Rapid re-think as reality took hold!
This is my problem. I’m not mad keen on the competitive aspects of the programme, but then its TV, it goes with the territory. What I’m much less happy about is the extraordinary romanticisation of the growing of fruit and veg (and in these programmes flowers too). The sheer hard work of digging the plot every year, the shifting of muck and compost, the realisation that due to late frost, too much or too little rain, random happenings (I still recall a hailstorm in late June a few years ago that wrecked my entire apple crop, puncturing the skins of the still tender a fruit and making the whole lot rot before they ripened), the watering, transplanting, thinning, harvesting and pruning and the fairly high risk that despite all this some crops will fail completely, others will be pretty disappointing and nearly all the rest will appear in quantity and be beautifully tasty (for a short period of about 3 weeks) but look like something the supermarkets would have fifty thousand fits at if some poor farmer tried to sell to them. All are completely glossed over, or in a couple of cases made a bit of a joke of (straight runner beans….whoever heard of such a thing). Everything at BAC is literally (if episode two was anything to go by) rosy in the garden. It makes it all look too easy, apart from the stress of the competitive element of course, and sadly after gardening programmes like this, when new plot holders arrive on site and discover the slog that is really involved, disillusion often sets in rapidly. Making a watchable TV programme about the realities of allotment life… now that is what I would call a real ‘Big Allotment Challenge’.