I had my reservations about whether to watch The Big Allotment Challenge, the latest programme on the BBC’s list of attempts to recycle the Great British Bake Off format. The muddy patches and aching limbs that I come home with every weekend (and the couch grass roots stuck to the soles of my boots) bear testament to just how much of a challenge allotment growing can be. But there’s something very perturbing about food growers challenging each other. I don’t like the idea of being in competition with your neighbours, rather than supporting each other in your common battles against docks, clay soil, slugs, pouring rain, gales that distribute flying shed components, mice who eat your broad bean seeds and (of course) the aforementioned couch grass.
All that this programme encouraged me to grow was a stronger sense of unease.
It left me with three questions…
1. Who is looking after the contestants’ own allotments whilst they’re busy gadding about on the telly?
I wondered about the practicalities of filming nine pairs of allotment gardeners from around the country. The TV solution seems to be to set up temporary plots in a picturesque walled garden – as artificial as the Bake Off’s kitchen in a tent. Flash back 15 weeks to when the growers arrived on their new plots. “It’s really important to get the soil clean”, says one contestant, lightly turning over a patch of already immaculately weed-free topsoil, in a perfectly defined plot, next to their own well-equipped greenhouse, between the neatly clipped lawns. I imagine any novice grower watching this will have a rude awakening when confronted with a real allotment plot for the first time.
2. What did they do with the other 496 radishes?
Challenge number one was where things really started to go downhill for me (you will note that it didn’t take long). The contestants were asked to pick three matching radishes from the crops that they’d grown, to present to the curiously named Jim Buttress (former Royal Parks manager), who is possibly the only sane person on the programme but has an unhealthy obsession with conformity. Whilst inspecting the row of radish trios, he seemed a bit like a drill sergeant at morning roll call, albeit much more polite. Along the row he went, commenting on size, whether the roots had been trimmed, whether there were any blemishes and (most serious of all) whether the radishes matched each other.
At this point, one of the contestants proudly said that they had grown in succession so had the benefit of 500 radishes to choose from, from which they found a total of four that were evenly matched. Three went on the bench, one was presumably held in reserve in case of a last minute radish disaster. Did the rest go straight on the compost heap? I mean, what do you do with 496 radishes? There was certainly no suggestion that anyone might actually want to find out what they tasted like. There can be no clearer demonstration of why I’ve never been to a ‘Show Day’ than this – and when I do, it will be the West Yorkshire Organic Group’s show that I visit, because it is judged on taste, as you’d think food should be. I love growing my own tomatoes because they taste so much better, but also because I enjoy having all the different sizes, colours and shapes to choose from.
3. Which came first, The Big Allotment Challenge or Britain’s Tastiest Village?
If you’ve been watching W1A, the BBC’s self-mocking spoof which follows the misadventures of their new Head of Values, Ian Fletcher, you’ll be familiar with the tribulations of Britain’s Tastiest Village. This planned new show, which seems to be a rehash of several other TV programmes, is one of the running jokes of the series, having lost several high profile presenters before even getting off the (very wobbly) drawing board. And the longer the Big Allotment Challenge went on, the shadow of Britain’s Tastiest Village somehow began to creep over the screen. I clearly wasn’t the only person who noticed. I began to think… is this life imitating art, or art imitating art, or life accidentally (or deliberately) recreating art? Is it all some really elaborate cross-promotional marketing scheme by the Beeb, or at this very minute is a deranged PR person waving her arms about violently and using the words ‘cock up’ and ‘I’m not being funny or anything but..’ The whole thing made my head hurt. And not in the challenging way that good TV sometimes makes your head hurt.
Maybe the BBC could be so kind as to run this programme on a Sunday morning, when I’ll have no danger of seeing it because I’ll be busy digging down at the allotment.