One of my more exciting projects over the past few months has been providing consultancy advice to a forthcoming BBC TV programme on the history of French gardens, presented by Monty Don.
As a writer and lecturer on historic gardens, it has been fascinating to work on familiar topics in an utterly different medium. I’ve come (grudgingly) to accept that the BBC understands what looks good on screen. They had pressed for more flowers, more colour, more prettiness, and I had resisted, thinking that the sumptuousness and scale of Vaux or Versailles did not not need tulips to enliven it. But then seeing the first cut of the film, I suddenly understood how the camera loves detail – how single roses and fountain spouts and statues and potted orange trees just play so much better than mile-long vistas and vast canals that, however much they dazzle in real life, seem flat and unimpressive on screen.
I’ve come to appreciate the luxury of writing a book or an article where, if at any point you find a gap in your narrative or a fact that starts to seem questionable, you can undertake more research and expand or amend your material. But for television, once the visits are complete, the filming done, that’s it. If, as you edit the film, you realise that an important trend is not sufficiently captured, or a mistake occurs in a key piece to camera, or indeed if spectacular monsoon-style rain has all but scuppered your efforts at outdoor shots of Versailles, there is little prospect of supplementing or correcting the material. You have what you have, and the programme has to emerge from that.
One other thought. It is easy to criticise such programmes as simplistic, as not offering enough detail or background. But I saw how television requires you to sum up complicated ideas and concepts in a sentence or two. It is a skill I struggled to acquire. How to explain the gradual, late eighteenth century shift from Le Nôtre’s structural and geometric gardens to the quirky French interpretations of informal English style? In a book, you could linger over the impact of pre-revolutionary fervour, discuss Republicanism and Romanticism, muse on Rousseau and Ermenonville, describe and display the influence of chinoiserie, and in this and other ways slowly tease out the gradual evolution of those characteristic jardins à l’anglaise. But, in an television programme that needs to cover 500 years of gardening history in an hour, you have only a few seconds of voice-over to make the link. I admired the production team’s willingness to work and rework such moments until we all felt comfortable with what was being said.
It’s not the programme I would have made – and doubtless no worse for that. It’s prettier, and simpler, and occasionally missing information that might have been useful. But it’s also an admirable attempt to capture the history of some of the finest gardens ever made, and I look forward to seeing the final version broadcast next Spring.