Hardy radio favourite is spared severe pruning: Michael Leapman on a fresh crop of panellists for 'Gardeners' Question Time'

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The Independent Online
FANS of Gardeners' Question Time are due for a shock tomorrow when they tune to Radio 4 for the first edition of the venerable programme made by an independent production company instead of the BBC. Despite suggestions of changes - celebrity spots, more audience participation and an attempt to appeal to youth - they will scarcely notice any difference.

There is a new set of regular panellists, replacing the five who defected to Classic FM in February. But their answers, their environmental biases and even their jokes are comfortingly familiar.

The programme has been recorded over three days at this weekend's International Spring Gardening Fair at Olympia in west London. Members of the 150-strong audience seemed relieved. 'It's all very much the same and it's good to have a few changes in the panel,' said Lionel Kay of Winchester, who had come up for the Fair with his wife Linda. 'But we do miss Clay Jones.'

The much-loved Mr Jones's departure last year was a catalyst of the subsequent in-fighting in the world of green-fingered broadcasting. This weekend sees the two camps wage war in public for the first time. Stefan Buczacki's warriors fire their first volley on Classic FM today at 2pm, with their Radio 4 replacements counter-attacking 24 hours later.

The impact of tomorrow's relaunch of GQT has been blunted by the fact that the panellists, and the chairman Eric Robson, have been on the programme over the last month, as part of the scratch teams put together when the old-timers quit. Now Trevor Taylor, the new independent producer, has assembled his regular panel. Most weeks he will have Robson as chairman and perm any three from four experts, all familiar from radio and television: Bob Flowerdew, Pippa Greenwood, Geoffrey Smith and Anne Swithinbank.

'I have no plans for big changes,' Taylor said. 'It's been going like this for 47 years and it will be going for another 47, I expect. Most of the suggestions for changes came from producers who didn't get the contract.'

Had the old panel not gone, he said, he would probably have kept it largely intact. As for venues, he plans more visits to urban areas instead of country villages.

Keen listeners may notice another subtle change. In the early days the experts were drawn mainly from the ranks of horny-handed head gardeners from big rural estates. Over the years these have made way for graduates from horticultural colleges, although one unmistakably rustic voice - Fred Downham in the last panel - has always been retained.

The new team has no Downham figure. Instead it has Bob Flowerdew, who has the appearance of an ex-Radio 1 disc jockey and is almost certainly the first panel member of either sex to sport a pigtail. Introduced by Robson as a computer expert and former model he is, predictably, a passionate advocate of organic gardening.

Flowerdew explains that his name comes from fleur de Dieu - a French word for the flax plant. Does he think it will ever become as much a househould name as, say, Fred Loads and Bill Sowerbutts, those stalwarts of the Sixties and Seventies?

'In gardening,' he replied gnomically, 'you must never try to guess what the season will bring.'