How to lose a cultivated audience

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'Well, we were blowing our tops about it today, weren't we Irene,' says Doris, clutching a pot of saxifrage to her chest. 'We don't get enough of it on the radio as it is and now they go and wreck what we do get. I'll go with the old programme to this Classic place if I can get it.'

Forget that storm in a teacup about Jeremy Paxman and Question Time. Parochial stuff. The only Question Time that matters at Groves Garden Centre, in Bridport, Dorset, is the one that goes out on Radio 4 on Sunday afternoons, nicely scheduled after the Sunday roast, the security blanket of a million and a quarter faithful listeners.

By now, the whole world must know of the defection of Stefan Buczacki and his gardening gang to Classic FM and away from the BBC, where the programme has run since 1947. The new show, to be called the Classic Gardening Forum, will go out on Saturday afternoons from 2- 3pm, starting on 2 April. The BBC has been left with the title, now rather an empty husk, an untried chairman without a panel to chair, and a lot of hot air.

'Silly,' says Doris, the curl on her forehead bouncing up and down like an admonishing forefinger. 'The programme has been so popular. We miss Clay Jones, mind you. And that Geoffrey Smith. Such a lovely voice. They used to know so much, those old ones. Now I suppose they'll bring on all the usual whiz-kids, trying to be clever. That's not what we want at all.' She strides off purposefully to inspect the pansies.

Irene, who has been nodding vigorously, takes up the thread. She is not so sure that the new programme is going to be up her street. 'Us gardeners don't need music,' she says. 'I mean I love classical music, of course I do, but not with gardening. I don't even know if I can get this new Classic whatever it is. I only ever listen to Radio 2 and 4.'

Doris and Irene are typical of the audience, predominantly female, mostly over 50, that the BBC has kicked in the teeth with its death wish desire to reinvent Gardeners' Question Time as an upbeat piece of Michael Green's promised land.

'We couldn't believe it,' says Dr Buczacki, who will continue expertly to chair the old team in the new slot. 'When we first met Trevor Taylor of Taylor Made Films, who were going to produce GQT for the BBC, he asked us what we thought the programme was about. We told him. Nonsense, he said. This show is all about entertainment. You've got to understand you're in showbiz now.'

In two and a half weeks, Classic FM has accomplished what in four months the BBC and Taylor Made failed to do. They had offered the GQT team a future, firm contracts and a commitment to continue with a programme that its listeners will recognise as the real thing. Dr Buczacki, whose feathers were ruffled when it was announced that he would be deposed as chairman by Eric Robson, is positively preening.

The gardening content of the new programme will be compressed in three 10-minute chunks with music filling the rest of the hour. Researchers have been combing the archives for music with horticultural overtones and claim already to have 600 potential pieces lined up. Six hundred] They must be scraping the musical barrel over at Classic FM. Wagner's Gotterdammerdung, Beethoven's Eruca, Verdi's Rigolettuce?

Down at the bar of world opinion, Groves, they aren't too sure about the music. 'I listen to the programme for information, to learn things,' says Stan Williams sternly. 'I like the subject to be treated seriously. People are so frightened of a straight approach these days.'

'The authorities go overboard catering for the so-called young,' says his wife, Beryl. 'Look around here. Most people buying here are over 40, wouldn't you say? Young people are too busy buying beds' - her husband shoots her an odd look - 'and things,' she adds quickly, 'to spend much time on gardening.'

That is not entirely true. One of the odd things about Gardeners' Question Time is the number of people who listen but don't have gardens. And that includes a fair number of the chic urban young, dreaming of a time when the view will not be filled with billboards and tower blocks.

Sylvia Foot, buying potted herbs for her kitchen windowsill, hasn't got a garden but counts herself as a devoted fan. 'I'm always interested in what they say. It's nice that it's the same all the time. Comforting.'

Down on the Winterbourne allotments, opinions are harder to canvass. The sun is shining at last, the muck needs spreading, the shallots need planting. In that entire landscape of wooden huts, rotting Brussels sprouts and beansticks, not one person has ever listened to Gardeners' Question Time. 'Stefan who?' asks John Antell, looking up from his row of broad bean seeds.

Jack Dawson is pulling the last few knobs from his Brussels sprouts before casting the stems on the compost heap. His bike, the saddle covered with a Safeway carrier bag, already has one string bag of sprouts hanging from the handlebars.

No, he says, he hasn't heard anything about the programme. Most of his time is spent here on his allotment. He isn't much of a one for radio. Or for television, come to that. 'I reckon I know all I need to know to garden in the conditions here,' he says. How old is he? 'Eighty- two,' he replies. And how long has he had the allotment? 'Since 1947.' 'What a coincidence,' I begin to say, then stop. It wouldn't matter two hoots to Jack Dawson.

Gardening, page 37

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

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