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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Monty Don’s French Gardens

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.

Monty Don filming at the Jardin Plume for his French Gardens series. Photograph by Historic Gardens Review editor, Gillian Mawrey, who worked with me as consultant on the programme.

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 a 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.

24 comments on “Monty Don’s French Gardens

  1. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    October 23, 2012

    What a great project! I am looking forward to spring to watch the series. I do understand your point, tv is a medium that requires a language and such condensing of information that is really hard to cope with, but if it’s well done is very much appreciated. I bet you had great time!

    • landscapelover
      October 24, 2012

      Lula, thanks for the comment. Yes, the project was great fun – much more dynamic and fast-moving (and with lots more people involved) than the slow, solitary slog of academic research.

  2. Monty Don
    October 24, 2012

    I think that is a very fair analysis. I have done quite a lot of this kind of thing now, and it never gets any easier. The irony is that SO much work goes into making it reductive and fit the tight, tight parameters of tv. I am now writing the book, if not exactly the book of the series, then my non-tv take on French gardens, and appreciate the luxury of expansion, redaction and rewriting.
    thanks for your work.

    • landscapelover
      October 24, 2012

      Monty, thanks for stopping by. I was struck by the skill involved in condensing complex information into brief moments – my favourite in the programme I think is the short scene with Patrick Borgeot when you turn on the fountains at Vaux. it captures so much of the drama and sense of anticipation in these gardens, and of the extraordinary invisible systems needed to make them work.

      Good luck with the book!

  3. Catherine Stewart
    October 24, 2012

    Although the medium doesn’t become the message, it can still make us stop and look at things from a different perspective. As a writer for garden magazines, I’m often asked to write about garden design. “Something inspiring in, say 500 words?” First reaction is ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ but as you pare back the words, sometimes the big idea becomes more clearly distilled. I think well-done TV can do that too. And perhaps the camera ‘sees’ a garden more like those of us without the intimate subject knowledge – we take in and take home the details in our heads more than the big picture I think.

    • landscapelover
      October 24, 2012

      Catherine, hi. Yes, it reminds me of that quote by Woodrow Wilson, when asked how long it took him to prepare his speeches:

      “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

  4. Julie
    October 24, 2012

    What a great project to have been involved with Jill.
    I will look forward to watching with great interest in the Spring….spotting the thumbnail shots of single roses, fountains and statues and thinking of you!
    Julie x

    • landscapelover
      October 24, 2012

      Julie, hi. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it!

  5. Adam
    October 24, 2012

    The interest of such programmes is also surely to inspire people to look further into the subject themselves. If the programme sends a few more people towards your blog and work, that can only be a good thing!

    I can appreciate now how difficult it can be to get a complicated message across on TV. I’m going to be filmed this weekend presenting three places in Paris that are important to me – for a slot that will probably last 4-5 minutes when edited!

    • landscapelover
      October 24, 2012

      Adam, your blog is full of so many fascinating, off-beat places, I look forward to reading / seeing which ones you chose for the film. Good luck working out the essential points you want to cover in those few minutes!

  6. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    October 25, 2012

    What an interesting program…my 2 favorite topics history and gardens. I hope we can see this in the US.

  7. Bettina
    October 27, 2012

    Yes! Yes, yes! Monty Don in France, wohoooooo! I hope swedish television will buy this.

    • landscapelover
      October 28, 2012

      I have no idea how widely such programmes are syndicated (if that’s the word) but hope you will both get to see the film. It’s one of three on French gardens – the other two will cover food and art in the garden.

  8. Emanuel
    November 7, 2012

    Wow that’s awesome!! I’m looking forward to watching this series….It must have been a great experience for you to witness something like this and partake in a special way!

    • landscapelover
      November 8, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Emanuel. It was a fascinating insight into a very different way of interpreting historical places.

  9. landscapelover
    November 8, 2012

    I am delighted to have joined the rosta of professional writers and horticulturalists who blog at Garden Drum. It’s a site that uses videos, podcasts, photography and the written word to cover a wide range of garden topics. A version of this post is the first to appear, in spoken form as well as text (and with more illustrations), and I will be contributing other pieces over the forthcoming months. Do go and take a look.

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  11. veddw
    February 21, 2013

    I wonder if you have anything illuminating to say about why we got a third programme apparently about gardens as art, which was mostly about either gardens than someone happened to have painted, or ones that Monty (possibly?) liked, but which didn’t seem to have much to do with art. If anything they seemed to be making a case for art as decoration? Did this drive you mad, too???

    • landscapelover
      February 22, 2013

      Anne, thanks for stopping by. I was only employed to consult on the first programme and, being in India, have not yet managed to see the other two in the series – so sadly have nothing illuminating at all to say about the third one. I did hear that it was the BBC who pressed for a programme on artists’ gardens, even though such a concept doesn’t easily support a strong narrative thread. It sounds as if the result was a rather personal MD take on gardens as art and art as decoration…

      For me there is an interesting programme to be made on French gardens intended to speak to us, to pass on ideas, to ask questions, to have something interesting to say; places with meaning, associations, and memories – which is closer to my understanding of the role of art.

      But to be fair to the series, I learnt through my involvement how difficult it is to make complex arguments or explain subtle shifts within the tight parameters imposed by television – and at least if the programme got people thinking about the relationship between art, decoration and gardens, that must be a good thing…

  12. Jane
    March 23, 2013

    What glorious photography. Such a tonic at the end, hopefully, of a very long winter. Monty puts information over in a very accessible way. If you are really inspired by the programmes, like me, they are a very good starting point for further reading. Please keep up the good work.

  13. Jo-Anne Lemaire
    December 15, 2014

    Mr. Monty Don, My husband and I watched a rerun of your French garden tour last night, and enjoyed it as much as when we watched it when it was first shown on tv. I admired the gardens and my husband wondered above the marvelous little car you drove. Is it a Peugot or maybe a Citrion? Please pardon my spelling mistakes. I had told him that I had seen you drive it on another program and also thought it was a great car.

    • landscapelover
      December 23, 2014


      Thanks for the question. The car is a Citroën Deux Chevaux (2CV).

      (Just to be clear, this isn’t Monty’s blog – he was kind enough to visit and comment when I was advising on his French gardens series.)

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  15. Pingback: Anglo-chinois gardens | GardenDrum

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2012 by in France outside Paris, Gardens, History, Paris and tagged , , , , .

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