After 33 years the Beechgrove Garden’s success still blooms
Age of austerity credited for recent popularity as show set to return for new series
IT is a perennial hardy favourite that has inspired more than three decades of green-fingered enthusiasts and, as Beechgrove Garden prepares to return to our television screens for a new series next week, there are few signs of the nation’s affection waning.
BBC Scotland has reported a 17% rise in audience figures year-on-year from 2009 to 2010. The most recent series garnered 280,000 viewers, its rise in popularity being credited in part to the current age of financial austerity.
“We are incredibly pleased about the continued success of Beechgrove Garden,” said Gwyneth Hardy, producer of the programme.
“With the difficult financial times we live in, it’s no surprise people are interested in growing their own fruit and vegetables – and are also keen to improve their surroundings.”
From humble beginnings in 1978, Beechgrove Garden has grown into a television institution. The original garden featured in the programme was a small plot of land attached to the BBC studios in Aberdeen, located in the city’s Beechgrove Terrace.
The show became an instant hit with gardeners north of the Border because it worked with the growing season in Scotland, unlike other programmes made hundreds of miles to the south.
Much of its early success was credited to the on-screen chemistry of presenters Jim McColl and the late George Barron who, despite their starkly different backgrounds – one a horticultural academic, the other a son of the soil – complemented each other perfectly.
“You can’t manufacture these things. It was a pure accident – we just hit it off,” says McColl. “We didn’t compete or try to outdo each other, conscious of the fact that each had something to contribute. We had some great fun presenting together.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t the occasional lost in translation moment.
“In the North East, where George was from, they have a tendency to add a ‘y’ or an ‘ie’ to the end of a word,” says McColl. “One day George was doing a link to the next part of the programme and said: ‘You’re getting on fine with that Jim, I’ll leave you to it. I’ve a wee jobby to do in the potting shed ...’
“Well, the camera guys fell off their podiums, the sound man dropped his microphone and everyone was in hysterics.”
Barron retired in 1984 and was replaced by the appropriately named Dick Gardiner. Carole Baxter, who had worked behind the scenes as head gardener, joined the presenting team two years later.
Other faces over the years have included Bill Torrance, Sid Robertson, Jim McKirdy and Walter Gilmore.
McColl and Baxter remain today alongside Carolyn Spray, Lesley Watson and George Anderson.
In the early days, the Beechgrove Garden Road Show travelled the length and breadth of the country.
On one occasion a man brought an entire branch from his ailing plum tree, while others travelled to Aberdeen from Glasgow in the hope of hearing the secret of growing great turnips straight from the horse’s mouth.
Celebrity fans include folk musician Phil Cunningham and actor Gregor Fisher. In the winter of 1990, the Beechgrove Garden was relocated to a new site on the outskirts of Aberdeen – where it remains today.
The show then made the move from BBC 2 Scotland to BBC 1 Scotland in 2007.
Starting out few imagined the show would achieve such longevity.
“I didn’t think I would be a television presenter, never mind be doing it all this time,” says Baxter. “I originally went for a behind the scenes role, but it’s been a great opportunity and 25 years later I’m still there.”
McColl, 75, has no plans to retire any time soon.
“They keep asking me back,” he says. “I suppose as long as I’m not forgetting things and can stoat from one bit to another I’ll keep doing it. I often compare gardening to music: you can be a spectator or participate at any level and get a lot of satisfaction from it.”
This year’s series will see the team attempt to remedy the damage to the nation’s gardens from the recent harsh winter and trial a host of organic pesticides to keep parasites at bay.
“We have been inspired by a lovely garden in Fife which has a mixture of ornamental and edible plants, so we are going to attempt to re-create that in the Beechgrove Garden,” says Baxter. “We’re looking forward to getting out into the community – and lots of successes and failures in the garden.”
l The new series of Beechgrove Garden starts on BBC 1 Scotland on Monday at 7.30pm.
FLOWER POWER: Jim McColl, Lesley Watson, Carole Baxter and Carolyn Spray prepare for a new series, and McColl, above, and George Barron, top, in the early days.