Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Chelsea Flower Show 2009

The Flower Show at Chelsea heralds the start of the social year for the glitterati. For the rest of us lesser mortals it reminds us that we better hurry up and get those plants in, and weeds out, if we are to have any planting even vaguely resembling a decent border.

Of course no gardener in their right mind thinks that the show gardens could be reproduced in their own modest plot. These are set pieces. Brought on, held back, hot-housed, frozen. Everything blooming in unison. Hedges and shrubs cut and clipped. Water without algae, plants without pests.

And the plants that the growers are showing – no doubt about it – are the epitome of perfection and beauty. Not one dead bloom, not one fading flower, not a scabby, scraggy leaf in sight. The best plantsmen in the country are showing at Chelsea.

One purpose of Chelsea in years gone by - when those living in their London properties visited the show to choose the plants for their country house - has long become a thing of the past. Chelsea is now for the gardening masses. And, yes, there are lots of us. All chasing our dreams.

But, nevertheless, for garden junkies like me it is an exciting and intriguing show piece. These are garden to imagine; there are wonderful new combinations to consider. They are, in short, inspirational. Occasionally amusing. Sometimes shocking. And so it was yesterday.

My favourite show garden was the Champagne Laurent-Perrier Garden. I liked the firm structure and clean lines, the architectural form of clipped hedges and the straight allee, the planting repetition, restricted colour palette, clean lines and water feature. And today I hear it did get Gold so my Landscape Architect antennae are still keen.

But the Daily Telegraph Garden also got Gold and Best in Show. I liked it, it just didn’t excite me. But then I like what the designer usually does with his plantings. Prairie plantings of grasses and daisy like perennials that associate well with them.

The third garden I liked was the Cancer Research Garden. It was a very striking, sculptural garden. All curving lines and geometric shapes, cool whites, black water, and lush green planting. It won Silver-Gilt. It dared to be different and I think it deserved a Gold.

The one that was truly different was the garden made of plastic plants. It was a joke. It should have stayed a joke and not been awarded any prize. This is a flower show, for goodness sake.

One of the most popular features of this years Chelsea was the pleached hornbeam hedge. Such an accommodatiing species, the hornbeam. And so versatile. It featured in all three gardens I mention. For flower colour, purple and claret were popular: in the Laurent-Perrier garden these were provided by a magnificent Paeonie ‘Buckeye Belle’, a glowing deep raspberry, and a darkest purple Iris ‘Superstition'. Fabulous.

And the plant of the moment that featured in so many of the show gardens? Well, there were plenty of 'living' walls but the real star was The Vegetable. There were rows of salad vegs, beds of brassica’s, canes of peas and beans. No poncy potagers, just sensible raised beds filled with beautiful, colourful, gorgeous crops. If only my vegetable patch could look so divine!

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show has given me ample room for thought: I shall spend the week-end pottering in the garden. Putting in the pots I haven’t planted yet, pulling out weeds and murdering pests. But in my mind I shall dreaming of Chelsea perfection.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Calender Girls and Critics

Don’t believe everything your read - critics don’t always get it right. The reviews for the play, Calendar Girls, were not enthusiastic. I suspect that some of the time critics – whether food, theatre or book critics – write negative reviews because they feel they have to justify themselves. I guess it can become tedious: watching yet another play, reading ones twenty-fourth book this month, eating out…again.

Perhaps they figure that there are only so many superlatives and so much praise that any reader wants to hear. They feel the need to be edgy, perhaps contentious. The press do love to shock, to stir things up. To get a reaction.

Of course I like to read reviews before I see an exhibition, go to a show or visit a restaurant. And they are often illuminating. But, as long as they are not thoroughly damning, I take them with a pinch of salt. I have learnt that critics don’t always get it right. And this goes for the reviews I read about the Calendar Girls, newly opened in the West End.

The reviews were either condescending or dismissive. We already had the tickets. Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge were the lead roles. A first rate cast. Surely they would not want to in something second rate. We were going, it would be an outing, it would be alright on the night.

And guess what? It was. In fact it was good and it was funny, well scripted and well acted. So how come the reviews were less than complimentary. Well, I think it has something to do with sex. This was a play about women, with a (nearly) all female cast, and jokes that appeal to women. And women of a certain age at that.

Now, what young male critic would get that? All the poor reviews I read were written by male critics. And most – like many in the youth obsessed media – were probably only half way to their three score years and ten. Now, how many of them could appreciate a joke about the nitty gritty of women’s lives.

Two of the reviewers wrote that once the actresses had got their kit off there wasn’t much left to the play. For them that was obviously the raison d’etre of the play. That was to miss much that they probably thought derisive.

The play is based on the book. The story – as you probably all know – is about a group of Women’s Institute ladies. The husband of one of them dies of cancer, and they decide to raise funds for research. The calendar, on which they pose tastefully nude, raises a great deal of money and makes them famous.

But the play is as much about morals as anything – nothing to do with nakedness – that success can go to ones head, that jealousy is destructive and fame and fortune don’t equate to happiness. And that appearances are not everything, but life and the support of friends is all. And the message of the play works because it’s not preachy, or glum.

There’s a bit of pathos in the second act, yes, but like the best of messages it all goes down best with a good swig of humour. But obviously not the sort of humour appreciated by a jaded or sophisticated critic. Fortunately there are enough WI members and mature wives out there to appreciate the gentle jokes and connect in some way with the wider message. That alone should make Calendar Girls critic proof.