4 MAY 2002, Page 55

Bending it like Beckham

Ursula Buchan

What was it to be, that Wednesday evening in early April? The second leg between Manchester United and Deportivo la Coruna in the Champions League or How to be a Gardener, part 7? No contest. Taped gardening programmes are fine. Football matches, where you know the score, are not. The very real chance that I might see David Beckham curl and dip a free kick under the bar decided the issue. I hate everything about football, except the football. I cannot stand the fans, the dodgy dealing, the depressing fallibility of young men with a lot of money. Five Live's 6-0-6, but I love the football. And so it was that I witnessed that reckless tackle which broke the famous metatarsal and dashed a million English hopes. Heart-sick, I changed channels to BBC 2.

It was not quite such a radical change as you might think. Alan Titchmarsh, who wrote and presented How to be a Gardener Series 1 (Series 2 follows next year), is horticulture's answer to David Beckham. He may look less like a Greek god than a garden gnome, with his weatherbeaten face, bulbous nose and cheery smile (this is gardening after all which, as we know, is to glamour what Ulrika Jonsson is to shyness), but his instinct is as infallible, his touch as sure, and his position as iconic.

In How to be a Gardener, he does what Delia did when she taught people how to boil an egg, only better, because he has a more intelligent, less plonky approach, and what he does is more difficult. You have to work as hard as Ainsley Harriott to make cookery unappealing; much of gardening, on the other hand, is not only mystifying to the novice, it is positively offputting.

Titchmarsh's virtue is that he is the genuine article, highly trained and very experienced, and it shows in his capacity to communicate both enthusiasm and knowledge in a relaxed, unforced manner. To get across your love for the doing, feeling, sensing and touching in gardening, without sounding an utter prat, is no mean achievement, He is helped by his series director and producer, Kathryn Moore; the use of time-lapse, fast-mo and close-up photography, as well as snappy computer tricks, to lay out the process of gardening and the development of growth for the viewer, removes the static ploddiness which is the hallmark of most gardening programmes. And there is no plinky guitar music, either, but Fatboy Slim instead.

Accompanying the series are a video, a book, and an online course, developed with the RHS (www.bbc.co.ukigardening). The book (I haven't tried the rest) is friendly, chatty and clearly set-out. Like the programmes, it is not high art but full of revealing apercus, which will make beginners, and not-so-beginners, think, Ah, now I understand.' It is not surprising that it should be top of the hardback bestseller list. The television publicity helps that a lot, of course, but, as important, the punters trust Titchmarsh with their £18.99, or a dis

counted proportion thereof. That trust takes time to build up. He has done his stint on Songs of Praise and Pebble Mill, as well as Gardeners' World and the Chelsea Flower Show coverage, written 30 books, a whole lot of newspaper articles, not to mention a fair bit of charitable work. Small wonder he is much loved by older women, incidentally the largest gardening constituency in the country.

Fortune has smiled on him, certainly: gardening broadcasting is not stuffed with people who can combine knowledge, hinterland and an agreeable personality. But he is also business-like to his grubby fingernails, marketing garden lighting, tools and organic fertilisers. while his face decorates a million seed packets. It is fashionable to sneer at him because he is so commercial, and because he is prepared to swap arch and toe-curling backchat with Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh on Ground Force, but nurserymen and horticultural manufacturers have much to thank him for, by helping turn gardening into a £3.3 billion business.

The first How to be a Gardener series had average audience figures of 3.7 million, which is said to be good for BBC 2, but is as nothing compared to Ground Force, which sometimes reaches 11 million on BBC 1, second only to EastEnders. Which only goes to prove (what we all knew, really) that the world is a meretricious place. Despite his robust but slightly touchy defence of Ground Force in the Garden magazine recently, for its usefulness in drawing people into gardening, I should be surprised if he were not prouder of How to be a Gardener, despite the smaller audiences. The only real fault with it, apart from the occasional and probably inevitable over-simplification, is his irritating tendency to adopt Thames Estuary English, as in Gerron with ya weedin', a tendency even more pronounced, it has to be said, on Gardeners' World. It seems a strange thing for a proud Yorkshireman to do. He would be better leaving that to the boy Beckham; like the genius for football, he was born with it.