Sunday Telegraph, May 2014
I get the weird impression that I’m the only person watching BBC2’s The Big Allotment Challenge. It’s been going for three weeks now, and I keep mentioning it to people, but they always look vaguely in another direction and change the subject to how no one could hear a word of Jamaica Inn. Perhaps the concept of a knock-out competition based on the ability of ordinary “allotmenteers” to raise runner beans and make beetroot chutney sounds a bit pathetic, but come on, there must be someone who agrees with me (tee hee) that when Ed and Alex let their carrots grow too long this week, it kind-of served them right? But “Ed and who?” is the general apathetic response when I say this. In the latest episode (ha ha) there was a lot of innocent innuendo surrounding the growing of “erect” gladioli – but somehow I feel totally alone here even mentioning it. If only the gardening expert on the show were a sexy, well-groomed middle-aged man with a northern accent who took his top off and showed the contestants how to dig a trench by moonlight. But the Challenge has deliberately opted for an elderly doyen of gardening instead, who could, quite honestly, talk all day about turgid spikes thrusting from the rude soil, and no woman listening would ever feel the sudden need to sit down with a cold wet tea-towel over her head.
I do see the drawbacks of the format – the main one being that gardening can’t be done against the clock in the way that baking and dressmaking can. Mistakes seem less like disasters, too. “Oh no, Sheila’s eggs are curdling!” we shout at home during Bake Off. “Oh no, Jeff has set that zip perfectly, but it’s the wrong way round and now there isn’t enough time to unpick it!” Clearly the allotment programme can’t compete with such stuff, because the growing of a perfect carrot is a quite lengthy business, and Nature takes some of the credit (or blame) in any case. So basically this was all filmed last year, and the contestants were introduced to us at the point when they had already been gardening their plots for nearly four months. We get flashbacks to the moments (in the long, cold spring of 2013) when the couples chose their varieties, or made big decisions about planting out their propagated seedlings – but the viewer at home is hardly in a position to judge whether such decisions are good or bad. Basically, there is nothing whatever in the allotment programme to compare with the sight of a sweating baker in a hot tent (with a clock ticking) dropping a tray of muffins on the carpet, or suddenly realising he’s put salt instead of sugar in the Victoria sponge.
And yet I’m hooked. The deliberate absence of sexual allure in the judges seems rather bold, and I love it that the contestants have literally no idea how their radishes are doing until the moment they dig them up. I am also learning a thing or two about gardening. But mainly I am waiting for an answer to a very pressing question: what happens to the allotments of the people who have been knocked out? Each week, you see, a couple fails to impress the judges and is obliged not just to leave the show, but to abandon their allotment, into which they have invested weeks and weeks of toil. Are they allowed to take the strawberries home? There is no way of knowing, but in the weekly “banished from Eden” shot, the couple certainly walk away empty-handed. So what happens to their plot? Does it continue to grow without supervision (depressing)? Is it bulldozed (sadistic)? Or is it just sprayed with a military-grade herbicide such as Agent Orange (somewhat against the spirit of the organic movement)?
Fern Cotton, as presenter, never mentions the phantom allotments – but for me they are ghoulishly ever-present, sort-of whispering on the breeze, “You gave us life, but you have forsaken us!” In the Bake Off, they can just tactfully reduce the number of baking stations as the weeks go by – but this is not an option on the Allotment Challenge. One day I am convinced we will see Gary and Pete (from Brighton) carefully selecting a tomato from a vine, and in the background – with an unearthly groan – an overgrown runner-bean tripod frame will angrily uproot itself, shake off a bit of loose loam, and then come scuttling camera-wards, like a triffid.