15 JUNE 1996, Page 49


Chelsea bliss

Ursula Buchan

Ever since the days of Lord Abercon- way, the last president of the Royal Horti- cultural Society but two, it has become tradition for each year's Chelsea Flower Show to be described as 'better than ever'. This year it was not. It was nobody's fault. Despite truly Herculean efforts by nursery- men, the very late, cold and dry spring affected the quality of some plants, and the timing of their flowering, which meant that carefully planned colour schemes in the show gardens or the stands had some- times to be abandoned. The only consola- tion for the visitors was that, for a change, many flowers in the marquee had the chance to open during the show week instead of, as is more usual, being at their best on press day, when only the Queen, her entourage, a couple of thousand cor- porately-entertained guests and a bunch of hacks get a really good look at them.

What was indubitably better than ever was the arrangement and disposition of celebrities on press day. Their numbers I used to be a bird of paradise. Now I'm just a bird.' have increased markedly at major flower shows, and especially at Chelsea in recent years. Their task is often to name newly- bred flowers after a charity, but, in some cases, it seems simply to add glamour and pazzazz to an occasion, which is otherwise just about flowers and gardens and boring things like that. Although their presence probably does not register with really staunch gardeners (who are too busy work- ing in their gardens to be keen watchers of what they probably call the `goggle box') they are breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner well, breakfast anyway — to television pro- ducers.

This year there were some intriguing billings, my favourite of which was the promise of Kim Wilde cheek-by-jowl with the Bishop of Norwich. Neil Morrissey and Martin Clunes were there, behaving impec- cably, while Betty Boothroyd arrived to name a sweet pea 'Elegance'. Daniel Ben- zali, 'star of the powerful new courtroom drama, Murder One' was billed to open the BSkyB 'New England Cottage Garden'. A very suitable choice, I thought, for a garden which shouted blueberry-pie American wholesomeness, filled as it was with lilies, lilacs, brick paths, and rocking chairs on a verandah. If I have a regret about this year's show it is that I did not witness Miss England (Miss Angie Bowness) launching `Toro Wheel Horse Classic', a charming new rose named after a ride-on lawnmow- er.

At one moment, a bemused steward asked me if I had any idea who the two `personalities' were, disposed photogenical- ly in the National Asthma Campaign's `Free as Air Low Allergen' garden. Neither of us could guess, although we could see, from the rapt attention of bearded chaps carrying furry muffs on poles, that they were not to be sneezed at. (If I were Bill Treacher or Gaby Roslin, I should be mor- tified to think that I had gone unrecognised by anyone).

There was a time when Chelsea Flower Show was part of the London Season; ladies wore hats and gloves, and head gar- deners accompanied their employers, note- books in hand. That is a long time ago. Class chic has given way to media chic. If you are the sort of person whose job it is to ask grieving relatives or minor celebrities fatuous questions in a caring voice on day- time television, you can bet your substan- tial salary that you will one day have to stand in a mock-up garden on the Embank- ment, directing fatuous questions at tongue-tied garden designers, while the wind whips off the Thames and straight up your linen suit. • The BBC has a weakness for choosing presenters for its Chelsea programmes, who have never been to the Show before, appear to know nothing about gardening, but are absolutely bowled over by it all. BBC 2's coverage this year included a prime example. She was, of course, loving her first time at Chelsea and, in particular, the gorgeous scent of flowers into which she poked her nose, inhaling deeply: `Mmtnnutun. Bliss.'

I am tempted to say that these things are best left to the experts, in this case the redoubtable and engaging Alan Titch- marsh. But that would be hypocritical of me. For, secretly, I dream of the time when I am a famous or, even, not so famous tele- vision celebrity, and I get the chance to appear on screen in a floaty frock, com- mentating on the Brazilian Grand Prix: `Brmmmmm. Bliss.'