Tales Of The Country: It's not easy being green...

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The Independent Online

Several times in my professional life I have been invited to sit in judgment on the professionalism of others. For BBC Television's 60th birthday celebrations, I was a member of a panel asked to determine a shortlist of great situation comedies, which was then presented to the public. We were asked to include some contemporary shows, forgetting that the public has the collective memory span of a goldfish. Des Lynam was duly voted greatest-ever presenter in the history of the medium, Colin Firth the greatest- ever actor, Men Behaving Badly the greatest-ever sitcom.

As arrogant as it sounds, these things are best left in the hands of experts - or at least perceived experts (I was then a telly critic). But the good folk at the Marches Housing Association overlooked that requirement when they asked me some weeks ago to judge their garden competition. Someone there must have read this column, spotted a reference to secateurs, discovered that Charlie Dimmock was unavailable, and decided to ask the geezer from The Independent. Flattered, I said yes. But where I felt myself reasonably well-qualified to pronounce on sitcom, I knew that I would be busking it desperately as a garden judge. And so it proved.

For two days I was whisked around Herefordshire by Alison from the MHA, comparing 21 gardens. Fortunately, Alison was a judge, too, as was her colleague, Liz, and both knew their asters from their elbows. Gerry, who was there taking photographs for the newsletter, also seemed to know his stuff. They would weigh up the merits of an unusual fuchsia, while somewhere in the background I would try to justify my presence, and my pub lunch, with helpful observations such as "These purple ones are very nice!" or "There's obviously been a great deal of thought given to the positioning of these gnomes!"

Actually, it proved to be a humbling experience. In some cases with very little disposable income, not to mention disabilities or plain old age, most of the contestants had worked absolute wonders. It was a precious insight into the garden as therapy, as life-enhancement or indeed, in one or two instances, as an incentive simply to carry on living.

And, of course, with or without intimate knowledge of the begonia, it was nigh on impossible to pick a winner. For a start, it was hard to keep sentiment out of the process. How to pick between the woman who had beautifully tended a corner of her garden as a memorial to her dead son, and the woman who, with no previous interest in horticulture, had kept her garden immaculate out of love for her late husband? As we drove away, I was an emotional hanging-basket case.

In the end we chose Mary Gittens of Tenbury Wells, whose back garden was a miracle of colour and vitality. She won £100 worth of garden-centre vouchers, although I couldn't help feeling that I emerged from the competition with something even more valuable. And I now feel vaguely qualified to make a style pronouncement, so here it is; the gnome is so yesterday.

Camping it up with the Von Trapps

Last Friday night Jane and I took the children to the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow to see Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music, which is basically The Rocky Horror Show with Julie Andrews. We had seen it before, compered by a very saucy comedian, in a Soho cinema full of gay men dressed as nuns. Needless to say, a ball was had by all.

We expected the Ludlow show to be a tamer affair. It is not, after all, a place renowned for campness. But the townsfolk rose majestically to the occasion. There were nuns galore, several does, a Gestapo officer, quite a few girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, and a lugubrious woman dressed as a guitar. It was great fun, and almost as camp as the Soho version.

But, as in Soho, the one-liners from the audience gradually dried up as everyone, despite themselves, got sucked into the film. When Captain Von Trapp broke it to the Baroness that he didn't want to marry her, there was silence in the auditorium. Stoically, she told him that she reckoned he was too independent for her anyway. More silence. She gazed at him with moist eyes. "I need someone in need of my money," she said. And out of the darkness came a broad Shropshire voice. "Over 'ere, love."

Breast is best ÿ by royal appointment

A couple of Saturdays ago we threw a party to celebrate our first year in Herefordshire. We hired a woman from Ledbury, the excellent Emma Gawlik, to do some of the catering, and the day before, as she helped me load about three metric tonnes of coronation chicken into the back of the Volvo, she mentioned that she also happens to cook for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

She is hired each summer by Lord and Lady Lonsdale, who host a carriage-racing weekend in Cumbria that is usually attended by the Windsors. And a couple of years ago she was obliged to take her baby son along, as she was still breast-feeding. Having laid out a splendid buffet, she retired to the Subaru to feed her son, but had trouble getting him to latch on to the nipple. He bawled. And while he was bawling and she was trying to stuff her nipple into his mouth, she failed to notice an elderly woman walking purposefully towards the car. The woman stuck her head solicitously through the window. "Everything all right?" said a clipped voice. Emma gave a start. "Your Majesty," she said. "I'm, erm, just trying to get him to latch on."

"Oh, I know," said the Queen. "It can be awfully difficult." One wonders which one one had problems with?