Super super, lovely marjoram... or is it magnolia?

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The Independent Culture
Gardens without Borders (C4) adheres to a foolproof formula: deposit Englishman in middle of Italy, observe chemical reaction in which blank speechlessness splutters into purple rhapsody. It's the hoariest of artistic traditions, to which Sterne, Browning, Lawrence and Forster notably belong. If they can do it, why can't the very personable Alan Mason?

We've now got through four parts out of eight, and the question has long since been answered. Alan had never visited Italy before this series on its gardens, but even his various travel companions, who know the peninsula much better, are still at the spluttering stage; they don't have the words either. Halfway through, the competition for adjectival predominance is hotting up. "Lovely" is doing respectably with 38 mentions so far, "super super" is just in front with 41, "amazing" is gathering pace impressively with 68, but way out in front, and almost certain to win the award for most popular term of approval in a gardening programme in 1995, is "wonderful", used an amazing 327 times so far. Surprisingly, the well-loved triple configuration "great, smashing, super" has not yet joined the fray.

Not only is Gardens without Borders a programme without a thesaurus. It is also making do with no Berlitz's Fluent Italian for Seducers in Twelve and a Half Minutes. At current market rates, this edition is relatively inexpensive, and can swiftly eradicate such solecisms as "geeardino" (for "giardino") that will have put off the Italophiles at whom this programme was aimed.

The funny thing is that Italian botany seems to be as much of a closed book as Italian vocabulary. Giving hope to the many of us who couldn't tell apart a magnolia and a sprig of marjoram but still aspire to a job on one of the various Gardener's Question Time-style panels, Alan will chance upon some "lovely" shrub and fairly regularly not have the faintest clue what it is. ("Well, they have different plants over there.")

Not every horticultural programme can be as knowledgeable as The Private Life of Plants, but there can surely be no harm in a little light learning.

On the principle that you make your own luck, this venture has not impressed the gods: more often than not, the gates of some "super super" garden open to Alan just when the heavens are doing likewise. In yesterday's report from a botanical paradise in Padua, the wind played merry hell with the microphone pinned to his anorak. Over at Lago di Garda, the gathering storm clouds frowned far more louringly than any television critic ever could.

The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (ITV) processes another spinechiller from an author so prolific she had to employ a pseudonym to do the extra work. Barbara Vine, who flogged Gallowglass and A Fatal Inversion to the BBC, is like the assistant taken on by a master carpenter who turns out to make classier furniture. Her boss, more appropriately, sells to the commercial sector, where the appetite for country houses, porcelain heiresses, them- there West Country accents and plots whose only mystery is why they're called mysteries is insatiable.

"Vanity Dies Hard" will doubtless crank up a gear or two, but for now the attractions are by no means abundant. The hero, married to the porcelain heiress, is obviously a rum one, because he breaks the golden rule understood by all Trollope fans, by being implausibly good-looking. The disappearing florist with no eyebrows is one to watch too: me reckons she be a witch. And then there's Leslie Phillips doling out sweet sherry and dry bonhomie, as his every contract stipulates. One of these days he'll be cast against type, and turn out to be a wino or a socialist or a murderer with no interest in young girls or soft tops at all. Maybe this is the time. But maybe not.

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