Staying In: Growing pains

Kew Gardens is the latest venerable institution to be `rationalised' - and, once again, the cameras are on hand to record the fun
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The Independent Culture
In recent years, institutions as diverse as the Royal Opera House, London Zoo and St Paul's Cathedral have opened their doors to camera crews. All have experienced varying degrees of regret about allowing documentary- makers to film them in the midst of cataclysmic change. The latest venerable British institution that may be feeling twinges of doubt about inviting in the cameras is Kew Gardens.

Its struggle to come to terms with the introduction of market forces is depicted in Channel 4's documentary Kew Gardens: Paradise Pruned. Whatever the management of the Royal Botanic Gardens think about it - and they are reportedly "fantastically disappointed" with the film - it makes for absorbing viewing. The institution, confronted with the need for "restructuring", stands as a microcosm of every business in Britain. No industry is free these days from such dread terms as "streamlining" and "downsizing".

John Lavin, deputy director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, has been brought in from the Department of Energy, where he was an adviser during the Miners' Strike, to shake up Kew. On his bookshelf are such seminal tomes as When Cultures Collide and The Manager's Handbook.

As central government funding is cut, he is well aware that the place needs "rationalising". "For many years, we've sailed through thinking `everything outside us is going on, but we are Kew'. We can't afford a culture that feels we have a divine right to survival. When I first came here, there was almost an attitude of `let's let the public in, anyway. They'll be a bit of a nuisance, but we'll see if we can work around them'."

Nigel Taylor, the manager of the public areas at Kew, admits that life within the 250-year-old Gardens is rarefied. He uses a neat image to describe the institutional discomfort with the whole idea of change. "Inside places like Kew, horticulturists have been protected from change... I often compare it to a dinosaur with its heritage tail in the 18th century, its head in the 21st century and its large body in between - but no one's quite sure where."

Ann Lalic, the producer of Kew Gardens: Paradise Pruned, says "the fact that Kew is undergoing a huge amount of change is what attracted me to it in the first place. Change is revealing. I thought we could look at a place where Thatcherism has just breached the walls for the first time. No institution is immune, but Kew is one of the last places to feel the chill wind of market forces. Kew is a very conservative institution, and the hierarchy there goes against welcoming change."

As does the attitude of many staff. Lavin says Kew "is quite a stroppy place. They're not homogeneous grey suits. They're a little bit further along the militant road. They always question management."

Taylor reveals that he finds refuge from the stresses of his job in his cacti house. "I find these plants so entertaining," he coos. "I know them all like members of my family. It's a different time-scale completely from the day-to-day life of administering a garden with hundreds of people working in it. Plants are easier to understand than people sometimes."

Lalic reckons that the very insularity of the staff at Kew is what makes them so interesting. "Gardeners go into gardening because they hate people," she observes. "They relate better to inanimate objects. They take a huge amount of pleasure in the plants' beauty, but behind those walls they're in another world. Any closed community is fascinating. That inbred world gives rise to powerful emotions. It's like a school; people get stressed by the hothouse atmosphere. In institutions like that, everything gets blown out of all proportion."

The producer is relieved that her next assignment is rather less pressurised. "I've been filming in an old people's home. Having been institutionalised in Kew for a year, it's like a breath of fresh of air." Especially as there's not a single mention of the word "restructuring".

`Kew Gardens: Paradise Pruned' on C4 tomorrow night