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TV review: The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, The Gallows Pole, and University Challenge

09 June 2023

BBC/Glenn Dearing

Monty Don, Joe Swift, and Sophie Raworth, presenters of The RHS Chelsea Flower Show (BBC2, 21-26 May; retrospect on 29 May)

Monty Don, Joe Swift, and Sophie Raworth, presenters of The RHS Chelsea Flower Show (BBC2, 21-26 May; retrospect on 29 May)

SO SERIOUSLY does BBC1 take the Lord’s primal injunction to humankind (Genesis 2.15) that every year it gives extensive coverage to a festival celebrating and encouraging us all to honour it. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show (BBC2, 21-26 May; highlights on BBC1, 29 May) offers deep theological insight and challenge, which, no doubt, formed the subject of many sermons throughout the land.

Particularly, it directs our attention to the conundrum: if the natural, uncultivated world is God-given, then how much ought or should we mould it to suit our own desires? The labelling of many plants as weeds, and many fauna as pests, that must be extirpated or kept at bay is utterly revised; lawns should be left to grow wild, and heaps of rubbish now be cherished as hotels for the bugs and beasties newly recognised as vital for the ecological diversity that we must promote, or perish.

This is great news for many of us: everyone now appreciates how far ahead of the fashionable curve we have been in caring for our vicarage gardens (i.e. not at all). Bad news, though, for the croquet lawn. This new consciousness permeates the Show. The model gardens must be created from sustainable resources, promote social and physical well-being, and have an afterlife of being re-erected in locations of great need.

Therapy and charity undergird, admirably, the whole project. Our churchyards and even our flower arrangements can learn from these developments: Oasis is now out. For a cynic, however, questions remain. The wild-flower meadows require precise preparation and care; we now rightly admire the flowers and foliage of many former weeds — but (quite out of sight at Chelsea’s apparently unkempt perfection) many wrong species are still kept at bay. Perhaps the vaunted naturalism is merely a sleight of hand: we move the goalposts, but our implacable desire to control and dominate still prevails.

The series The Gallows Pole (BBC2, Wednesdays) seeks to present humankind itself in its wild state. The Industrial Revolution’s poverty and dispossession bring misery to Pennines weavers; bitter discontent and revolution seethe. Does improvising speech encourage new flowering in that long-suppressed subspecies that we label actors? No, making every second word “f***” merely underlines how much they need the writer’s art. All-encompassing aggression and violence is not true northern grit, but only a modish frisson for the chatterati.

Might University Challenge represent the pinnacle of artificial human cultivation? On Monday of last week (BBC2), hothouse-induced brainboxes competed in Jeremy Paxman’s final show after 29 years as chairman. The Chinese-British writer Jung Chang, presenting the trophy, reminded us how, during the Cultural Revolution, education could get you beaten to death; she celebrated, movingly, the absolute and eternal value of knowing stuff and learning more.

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