Daphne is a wallflower no more

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AT A CAFE to one side of the Spring Gardening Fair at Olympia sat a fat woman from Croydon eating a restorative slice of chocolate fudge shortbread. 'I preferred the old format of Gardeners' Question Time, not the latest one. I hate silly little giggling girls,' she said.

Silly little giggling girls? Question Time's learned and experienced female experts? The conservatism of Radio 4's listeners, as John Birt is beginning to discover, runs deep and stubborn as a dandelion's tap root. What about Daphne Ledward, whose warm, sensible-sounding Lincolnshire-cum-Yorkshire accent has been heard on GQT for 12 years? 'Yes, Daphne's all right,' conceded the chocolate-cruncher.

Until recently Ms Ledward was Gardeners' Question Time's longest- serving member. Then she, along with the entire team, decamped to Classic FM, driven out by planned changes to the programme, and war was declared in the dahlia borders. This weekend the real battle is joined. At 2pm today Classic FM is due to broadcast the first Classic Garden Forum, the old team, from the old village hall, grafted on to a new, vigorous stock. Radio 4 runs its new version of Gardener's Question Time, which many listeners already regard as a nasty sucker, on Sundays at 2pm. The BBC's multi- thousand-pound advertising campaign to keep its listeners has looked panic-stricken.

Ms Ledward will be listening to a preview tape of the new show today as she drives to a wedding. She is, she says, excited about the gardening question programme for the first time in years. Astoundingly, this stalwart of the show says it is the first time she has ever really felt included. 'I never felt I belonged to it before. Now I know I'm a major part of the programme. For the first time I've got a two-year contract and I'm involved in 40 of the 52 programmes a year. Before, I felt I was a token woman.'

Given the fame of Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West, it seems extraordinary that there should be any resistance to the idea of women gardeners. Yet Gardener's Question Time began in 1947 as an all-male show and stayed that way until the early 1980s.

'Then there was a letter in the Radio Times saying, why is it, when over 50 per cent of leisure gardening is done by women, that you have all male experts?' said Ms Ledward. 'And Ken Ford, who was producer and chairman, said as far as he knew, there weren't any.'

This statement was challenged by the programme organiser at Radio Lincoln, where Ms Ledward was already broadcasting. She had started gardening at the age of three. After school she joined the social services, spending her spare time on gardening correspondence courses, and her holidays in horticultural nurseries. In her mid-twenties she started a landscape business - putting only D Ledward on her cards so that no one knew she was female, learning human and plant nature the hard way. It paid off.

The small garden of her thatched cottage near Spalding, in Lincolnshire, looks as if it had been transported straight from the Chelsea Flower Show. She is cutting down on her vegetable garden because it is too productive: last year she had to buy two more freezers for the sweetcorn.

Yet despite her experience, there were difficulties when she joined Gardener's Question Time in 1982, she says. 'I had problems with the team. The ones who were old resented me terribly. Their world had come to an end. They didn't want interlopers, and when the interloper was a woman and under the age of 65 . . .' One listener wrote from Cambridgeshire every three weeks, telling them to get that Daphne Ledward off the air. Women, he said, were meant to pick flowers, not grow them. She only knew she had begun to crack it when she heard Bill Sowerbutts saying that Daphne Ledward might be a neurotic woman, but she knew what she was talking about.

As time passed, attitudes changed. Now Ms Ledward says that the old GQT team, including Stefan Buczacki, Fred Downham, Bridget Moody, Sue Phillips and all, is so close as to be a substitute family. She has taken this idea to extremes by turning one member of it, John Hands, then a sound engineer on the programme, into her husband. At their marriage in 1992 Clay Jones gave her away, Fred Downham was an usher, and Diana Stenson, who once produced GQT and now is in charge of Classic Gardening Forum, was her bridesmaid.

It was that family feeling between the panel and production team which made the old Gardener's Question Time such friendly listening. Yet Ms Ledward, accepted as she was by the listeners, was never given a full job on the panel. Instead, she says, a token slot was rotated between the women panellists. When, early this year, the show was put out to an independent producer with much talk of a new youf market, it became plain that she was heading, metaphorically, for the compost heap.

'I don't want to knock the BBC,' says Ms Ledward, differing, in this, from Radio 4's listeners, who have deluged its Talk Back show for weeks with complaints. 'The independent producer was saying he wanted entertainment. He didn't want people to think they'd got the Open University on gardening. But if you stop anyone and ask them, people want to learn.'

And so the old team cannily swapped channels, gaining, along the way, two-year contracts, full- time women on the panel, and a new security for Ms Ledward. This Saturday will show whether Radio 4's conservative listeners will uproot themselves and follow.

Ms Ledward said, diplomatically, that she hoped gardeners would listen to both of the rival question times. But would she be tuning in this Sunday to Radio 4's new version of Gardeners' Question Time? 'Unfortunately,' she said, 'we will be taking the bride's mother out for lunch. Which will, er, sadly, conflict.' She laughed. 'I've dipped into the ones they've had so far,' she said. 'And I'm not worried.'

(Photograph omitted)