Changing blooms

Yet another real-life TV series about neighbours and their relationships is imminent - but this time, they all get on. Not only that, they've been building community spirit in their gardens. Michael Leapman joins in
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The Independent Culture
NOW HERE'S something really new from the BBC: a real-life programme about neighbours who, unusually, are not seething with mutual hatred and indignation, nor going to court to resolve disputes. Instead, these folk are friendly, co-operative and imbued with community spirit - and it's all thanks to the calming power of gardens.

In her hunt for a venue for Gardening Neighbours, a series which begins on BBC2 on 13 November, its producer Rachel Innes-Lumsden stumbled upon an idyllic cul-de-sac of eight Edwardian houses in Netheredge, a middle- class district of Sheffield as distant from the city's Full Monty image as you can imagine. She made the householders of Kenbourne Grove an offer that none of them could refuse: have your garden completely remade and in return, we will put you on television.

This was not to be an instant makeover in the mould of Alan Titchmarsh's Ground Force, but a real co-operative effort; because even though the licence-payer would foot the bill for the materials and the new plants, the deal was that the householders and their families would do a large part of the necessary physical labours themselves.

The resulting transformations may be less sudden and less radical than you see on Ground Force, but are more realistic because they have been achieved by ordinary people. True, the designer Diarmuid Gavin was on hand to draw up the plans for the made-over plots, but the owners didn't have to accept his ideas - and some did not.

The result is a textbook of what can be achieved with imagination and commitment in gardens restricted by the geography of the suburban terrace to an average size of 60ft by 20ft. Before the work started, these were all much the same - paved patio, some lawn for the kids to play on and a half-hearted flower border, all shaded by too many shrubs and trees that nobody had the heart nor the will to cut back. Now each garden has a character all of its own.

There was, inevitably, a price to pay. For most weekends last summer, the Grove resembled a building site. The small common area in front of the houses was stacked with rubble and boxes of stuff either going into or coming out of the gardens, while camera crews roamed around to record the miraculous transformations taking place. Residents had to find somewhere else to park their cars: that and some disagreement over which trees would be sacrificed were among the few bones of contention in what proved to be a surprisingly aggro-free operation.

"The idea came up about two years ago" explains Rachel Innes-Lumsden, "when a professor at Sheffield University did some research on what people do with their gardens. We liked the idea of making a gardening series away from the usual places, but it was hard to find exactly the right location. We'd looked at 20 or 30 other possible sites before we found Kenbourne Grove."

One of its advantages is that the houses are grouped around a small central area jointly maintained by the residents, where they gather for a chat on warm evenings.

"This had already brought them together as a community," says Rachel. "We were lucky from the start that everyone agreed to do it - we didn't have to persuade anybody. And they all seem pleased with the results."

Sarah Smith and her partner Steve Wales are certainly pleased. From their very standard back garden, Diarmuid has created an alluring space with a faintly Moorish look about it, dominated by a "snake" of blue mosaic that winds from the front to the back, separating the lawn from the flower border. When I called there Sarah, a social worker, was busy on another mosaic that she is inserting into the patio.

"I was having my first baby when we were asked to do the programme," she says (in fact, this turned out to be babies - twin girls, Daisy and Moirag). "I wanted to get involved because I like gardening but it's been hard to fit it in around the twins.

"Me and my mum did the tiles. I'd never done any hard landscaping before but I've always enjoyed planting and growing. When we decided to come here four years ago the garden was a big attraction."

Steve, a probation officer, did his bit by painting the shed and breaking up the concrete on the patio. "It was a larger pro-ject than we'd anticipated," he admits. "Yesterday I wanted to take the kids out but I couldn't get the pram through the piles of hardcore out at the front."

"We've all had our moments when we've regretted it," agrees Rachel Innes- Lumsden, "especially when the weather has been against us like it is today." It was towards the end of summer on one of the last days of filming and we were sheltering in an alcove from the persistent drizzle. But the general consensus among the Grove residents and the programme- makers is that the hard work and inconvenience have paid off.

Among the major demolition jobs was a garage alongside the house where Barbara and Chris Bristow, both youth workers, live with their two daughters. They moved here only a few months before the invitation came to take part in the series.

"This has given us a great chance to get to know the neighbours in a very short time," says Barbara. "We had different ideas about certain things - like what to put in the central area - so we all held meetings to thrash it out. I've always stood in awe of gardens and I didn't know what I wanted in ours, so this [gesturing towards her plot] is mainly Diarmuid's idea."

Apart from tearing their garage down, Diarmuid's design involved ripping up the path that ran down the middle of the Bristows' garden and removing a laburnum tree. He has replaced them with a teardrop-shaped lawn, a little stream and a pond at the end, and beds for flowers and herbs.

As well as designing most of the gardens, Diarmuid Gavin, who is usually based in Dublin, is the main presenter of the series. His previous television experience includes Home Front in the Garden. He says that for Gardening Neighbours he curbed his own design instincts in order to fall in with what the residents wanted for their gardens.

"This is not cutting edge," he admits. "I regard myself as a radical designer, but here I've been led by the people. Often midway through they'd say they didn't like something, so I did it differently. In one garden I was going to do a stream running through a shaded area at the back but they said they didn't think it was right for their garden. I was really embarrassed."

One family which did not need his services was that of Billy and Kay Harrap and their children. Billy is an antiques dealer who specialises in items from old fairgrounds and circuses and other markers of 20th-century popular culture. He and his wife drew up a plan for an extraordinary garden on a fairground-and-seaside theme.

At the far end of the garden is an old beach hut that bears a freshly- painted cartoon of a buxom prancing lady in a bathing costume, in best picture-postcard style. It boasts this message: "Beach hut for hire, 3d per half day." Next to it are antique cast- iron coconut holders, for the amusement of the family and their guests. Swags of fairy lights hang above the fences and are threaded through the tall poplar at the back.

The entrance to the garden from the house is through an archway that is emblazoned with a one-word message: FUN. "I wanted it to look like the entrance to a fairground," says Billy Harrap.

At the front of the Harrap house are three remarkable obelisks made from pebbles stuck on top of each other, which look like the symbols of some obscure cult. These were dreamed up by the programme's other presenter, Ali Ward, who worked as a gardener for a few years and is now a budding designer. Gardening Neighbours marks her television debut.

"They only let me design a few of these small front gardens," she says. "My chief role is going around talking to the residents while the camera follows me - I don't talk direct to camera like Diarmuid does.

"But I've loved doing it. I really wasn't interested in doing yet another quick-fix programme, and we haven't been changing things instantly, we've stayed here for the whole summer and really got to know these people and their gardens."

She is confident that the series will work. "Viewers will fall in love with the residents. They'll get to know them in the first couple of programmes and then get caught up in what's going to happen, and they'll learn a lot about gardening along the way."

Like gardens, television programmes do not always turn out quite as their creators expect. But Ali's instinct is right: if Gardening Neighbours is going to be anything more than just another quick makeover series, it will be because of the strengths and quirks of the residents of Kenbourne Grove.

! 'Gardening Neighbours' will be broadcast on BBC2 from this Friday at 8.30pm for six weeks