Into the Top Thirty we go, and a real treat in store for anyone hoping to see a picture of Ken Burras examining a Luffa. Kicking off with a programme promising to make the most out of new-fangled colour television.
30: Gardeners’ World
(Shown 2736 times, 1968-2021)
Borne out of Percy Thrower’s Gardening Club (526 episodes, 1955-1967), Gardeners’ World promised a fresh look at gardening for the colour TV era. It’s a format that made for ideal comfort viewing for many, perhaps making it no surprise it’s a programme that’s still with us today.
Gardener’s Club may have offered “a weekly date for enthusiasts to meet Percy Thrower and his gardening friends”, but Gardeners’ World set goals that were a little more lofty. Writing for the Radio Times in advance of the first episode on 5 January 1968, producer Paul Morby set out his stall. For the full effect, you may want to start listening to some Elgar… now.
For twelve years Gardening Club on BBC-1, with Percy Thrower and professional or top amateur guests, has served the nation with its gardening facts, techniques and inspiration. During my eight years’ association as producer, I have opened 100,000 letters which have said ‘thank you’ to the artists concerned.
I realise that we must have exasperated and disappointed, even insulted viewers on many occasions: the connoisseur breeder of orchids has little patience with a programme about polishing onions for the showbench. But our commission has been to serve all levels of gardener in the entire British Isles.
No hobby is practised here with greater devotion and skill than gardening. It is not just a ‘weekend pottering’; it is an Art as well as a Craft. Its exponents, who practise in all sizes and shapes of garden, on allotments, in backyards, patios, or window-boxes, will continue to be the audience we aim at.
After our opening feature from Oxford with Ken Burras, programmes are waiting on garden design and garden history, on carboys, cacti, and houseplants, on chrysanthemums, tomatoes, and dahlias, for the millions who fight every year to achieve ‘their best crop ever.’ Percy Thrower will be there for these programmes, and there will be film visits to some of the great National Trust and private gardens.
The British people have a right to be proud of their gardens, and of the enormous range of plants, introduced by collectors from every corner of the world, that will thrive in our climate. A plant that once grew only in the Himalayas now lives and brightens corners of Wapping, Wakefield, and Wick.
Those splendid amateurs who cultivate the finest vegetables and fruit are served by the professional skills of research stations, trial grounds, and top nurserymen.
There will be no limits to the plants and places covered by Gardeners’ World.Paul Morby, Radio Times issue 2303, 30th December 1967
Stirring stuff. Not that Gardeners’ Club was the first horticultural programme ever put out on the television service, of course. 21 November 1936, only a few weeks into the life of BBCtv, saw the first Gardening Demonstration by broadcaster (and “one of the most popular talkers on the air” according to the Radio Times) C H Middleton, and while the audience will surely have been tiny, the benefit of seeing an actual garden (albeit in 405 lines on a tiny screen) offered an immediate boon over any radio equivalent. And so, with Middleton’s demo of autumn pruning techniques, a distinctly British genre of television broadcasting was born.
(Aside: despite the lack of moving pictures, gardening tips had long been popular on the radio by that point, and had been running since the early days of the BBC. Ever since 2ZY Manchester broadcast Gardening Notes by P. Langford for the first time in November 1922, in fact. And even now, it’s clear Gardeners’ Question Time will outlive us all.)
Following those early Morby-helmed episodes, Gardeners’ World would go on to become a fixture in the BBC2 schedules (and an occasional visitor to the BBC1 daytime schedules in 1973, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1993 and 1994, if you’re wondering). In all that time, while broadcasting norms have evolved, from the days of the early BBC2 Colour service to modern-day HD widescreen, the content has remained the same: amiable presenters chatting about what to do with the things that grow in your garden, things you might like to start growing in your garden, and hey! get a load of these gardens. No attempt to focus on attracting a greater share of the 18-24 demo, no Top Gear-style rebrand, the only changes coming when someone like Alan Titchmarsh regenerates into someone like Monty Don.
It certainly hasn’t hurt matters that the show has been popular. Very popular, in fact. Looking at the publicly-available BARB viewing figures from 1998-2018, GW has been a hardy performer, being the most-watched BBC2 programme on 44 different weeks throughout that period, during its post-millennial peak posting the kinds of numbers that TV producers would strangle their nan for today. It has featured in BBC2’s weekly top ten no less than 482 occasions during that period. Given there were only (by my reckoning) 600 different episodes during that period, that’s an especially impressive feat.
In fact, who’d like to see a rundown of the ten most-watched Gardeners’ World episodes of the last 25 years? Because that’s what’s about to happen.
- Fri 27th Feb 2004 (4.57m viewers)
With spring around the comer, the team get started on the £20 flower border and meet a novice vegetable gardener, while Monty Don inspects the Berryfields garden after its first winter. With Chris Beardshaw and Sarah Raven.
- Fri 19th Mar 1999 (4.61m)
Gay Search helps viewers to gain inspiration in the first of six features focusing on design. Stephen Lacey visits an Oxfordshire garden rescued from ruin by the late interior designer Nancy Lancaster, while Pippa Greenwood offers advice on sowing vegetable seeds in her organic kitchen garden, and Alan Titchmarsh provides more timely tips from Hampshire.
- Fri 9th Apr 1999 (4.64m)
Gay Search’s garden-design course reaches the stage when she gives a guide to choosing flowers and foliage. Pippa Greenwood picks out tomato seedlings and sows carrots, parsnips and cauliflowers in her organic kitchen garden, while Stephen Lacey explores the garden rooms surrounding a former vicarage near the Norfolk coast. Alan Titchmarsh imparts advice from his Hampshire home.
- Fri 26th Feb 1999 (4.65m)
Stephen Lacey travels to sunny California to find the colourful horticultural antidote to the grey skies of the British winter; Pippa Greenwood plans ahead for a fruitful garden and a bumper harvest by giving her guide to planting fruit trees; and Gay Search visits the peaceful haven of a small cottage-style garden in Buckinghamshire.
- Fri 16th Apr 1999 (4.67m)
Gay Search concludes her Living Space features by looking at garden furniture and accessories. She also visits a spring garden in Clevedon, Somerset. Stephen Lacey takes in the spring bulbs at the public gardens of Highdown in the South Downs, and Alan Titchmarsh gives his weekly tips from his Hampshire garden.
- Fri 14th Aug 1998 (4.69m)
While Alan Titchmarsh offers topical advice on gardening jobs for the weekend, Gay Search visits a national collection of penstemons flourishing in Portland Bill, Dorset. Ceri Thomas views some exotic vegetables growing on Asian-run allotments in Handsworth, Birmingham, and Stephen Lacey visits Ireland to see a classically inspired shady garden in Dublin.
- Fri 26th Mar 1999 (4.72m)
Stephen Lacey explores the garden rooms surrounding a former vicarage near the Norfolk coast, Pippa Greenwood gives advice on sowing vegetable seeds in her organic kitchen garden, and Gay Search continues her guide to garden design with surveying and soil testing.
- Fri 7th May 1999 (4.76m)
Gay Search provides a simple design solution to transform a shady passageway, Pippa Greenwood builds a new compost bin in her organic kitchen garden and Stephen Lacey pays his final visit to Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex, where he explores the lush plants around the water gardens. Alan Titchmarsh provides more advice from his Hampshire garden.
- Fri 21st May 1999 (4.80m)
Dan Pearson shows how the domestic gardener can learn from plants in their natural habitats. Pippa Greenwood introduces pest controls to her test greenhouses and, following an appeal to viewers, the first spectacular small garden is featured. Back in his Hampshire garden, Alan Titchmarsh dispenses more tips and advice.
- Fri 19th Feb 1999 (5.87m viewers)
Alan Titchmarsh returns to present a new series full of horticultural hints. To mark its 30th anniversary there’s a look back at the programme’s history, while Stephen Lacey looks forward to the next millennium with reports from Paris and California on the future of gardening.
29: (The) Daily Politics
(Shown 2793 times, 2003-2018)
Now we’re definitely in an era of Too Much Politics (no? Just me? Should I stop looking at Twitter?), it seems almost quaint that it was once a thing that could be pigeonholed into occasional off-peak broadcasting nooks, generally on Sunday mornings when sensible people were busy sleeping. As we’ve previously established, for a long time the BBC’s main daily outlet for all things Westminster was, well, Westminster (aka Westminster Daily and Westminster On-Line). But come the dawn of the third millennium, politics wasn’t just safely contained within an old building on the bank of the Thames. Devolution had resulted in policy-making totems at Stormont, Holyrood and The Senedd. And so it was time for the BBC’s flagship political programme to broaden it’s horizons to other parts of the UK.
Well, okay. It still focused almost exclusively on Westminster, but it did get itself a new name and a bit of a refresh.
The start of the transition came about in September 2000, when Greg Dyke demanded a review of the Beeb’s political output. As a result of the subsequent review, the axe fell on a number of long running mainstays, such as On The Record (after 14 years), Westminster (after 31 years) and Despatch Box (just four years). The revamp came with an increased budget for political programming, which leapt from £18.5 to £23.5m per year. Think about that while watching BBC World News clumsily dumped on top of the BBC News Channel so they can stop paying half the newsreaders.
A new approach was demanded, and in 2002 some Big Changes were reported in the Guardian as being on the horizon. Changes such as a post-Question Time political roundup on Thursday nights, which became dignity-vacuum This Week with Andrew Neill, while Saturday mornings would see a new show targeted at “under-45s”, with potential presenters named as Rod Liddle, James O’Brien and Fi Glover. That programme seems to have become Weekend with Rod Liddle and Kate Silverton, which lasted for a total of… six episodes before freeing up the Saturday 9am slot for Repeats Of Old Wimbledons. Plus, perhaps inevitably given it was the dawn of digital TV, the promise of brand new interactive BBC service I-Can, reported as offering “direct participation between the public and decision-makers”. That seems to have quietly disappeared before any launch – the only other reference I can find to this on the entire internet is… the BBC press release that the Guardian article was gleaned from. I’m going to assume someone released that they could offer the same service much more affordably by just having an email address. If anyone does have any other details on I-Can, I’d love to know more.
At the centre of all this: a full relaunch and rebrand for Westminster, with a full two hour slot each Wednesday so that in-depth coverage can be provided of PMQs, with hour-long slots running, as before, each Tuesday and Thursday.
And so, on Wednesday 8 January 2003, The Daily Politics (which lost its definitive article somewhere along the way) made its debut on our screens, with Andrew Neil and Daisy Sampson at the controls.
(For the record, as this was billed as “the successor to Westminster”, I’m treating it as an individual programme, and not a continuation of Westminster/Westminster On-Line/Westminster Daily, because it was complicated enough as it was.)
The new approach proved to be a successful one, so much so that the programme moved from three to five episodes per week from April 2005, with hour-long episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays reduced to half-hours, with new half-hour episodes on Mondays and Fridays. By 2012, these five episodes were complemented by a sister show each Sunday, with the appropriately-named Sunday Politics differentiating itself from the main show by incorporating regional opt-outs allowing for local political affairs to be covered in appropriate depth. (NOTE: I’m treating Sunday Politics as a distinct entity, by the way.)
All good things must etc, and in 2018 – after fifteen years on air – it was time for Daily Politics to be replaced with something fresher, or as the BBC press release at the time had it, “to improve its digital coverage, better serve its audiences, and provide more value for money”. Inspired by the pacier stateside approach of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and aiming to coax the wider range of people interested in politics via social media and podcasting back onto the legacy medium of TV, Politics Live vowed to be more discursive and conversational, and less beholden to topics MPs would prefer to be discussed. Plus, in a nod to the changing times, studio guests were given reusable branded plastic cups, rather than Daily Politics’ branded mugs.
And so, on Tuesday 24 July 2018, Daily Politics aired for the very last time, the final episodes coming with the promise of “a political jamboree on College Green”. And, following that political par-tay, The Daily Politics was dead, and in came Politics Live, fashionable lower-case lettering and everything.
If only they knew how busy the next few years of politicking would make them.
You’ll notice Daily Politics was only ever broadcast once on BBC One. If you’re wondering, that was on 13 July 2016: “Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn present live from Westminster as David Cameron conducts his final Prime Minister’s Questions before handing in his resignation.” Remember him? Seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
That’s that. A pair of programmes a tad less sexy than Top of the Pops (and Pointless), I’ll grant you. But get your hotpants ready for the next thrilling installment. Excitement is on the horizon: guaranteed.
One response to “The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (30 and 29)”
Kate Silverton hit Rod Liddle during the pilot of their weekend show and he apologised afterwards for saying ‘something stupid about the disabled.’ That was before he made a career out of writing stupid things every week.