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TV review: The Great Northern Garden Build

Benjie Goodhart / 06 May 2021

BBC's The Great Northern Garden Build follows the design and construction of the new RHS Bridgewater garden, and Jabbed! Inside Britain's Vaccine Trumph looks at the UK's vaccine task force at work.

The Great Northern Garden Build 1/2, Monday 8th May, 8pm, BBC Two

I enjoy watching gardening programmes. People might think this is a bit odd, as I don’t have a green-fingered atom in my body. I only have to look at a plant and it will keel over and die instantly, with an almost audible sigh. The angriest my wife has ever been with me was when she went away for a week and came back to discover I’d killed all our plants. To be honest, I was quite proud of myself for having managed to keep myself alive for a week, never mind the plants.

But you don’t have to be a gardening enthusiast to like watching programmes about it. I watch golf, and I’ve never played it. I watch baking programmes, yet my own repertoire stretches to a rather dry and ill-formed banana bread. Hell, I like watching police thrillers, but I’m not an enthusiastic murderer myself.

Anyway, I like stuff to do with gardens, and this four-part series certainly ticks that box. It looks at the creation of the Royal Horticultural Society’s new showpiece garden, RHS Bridgewater, being built in Salford, Greater Manchester. The RHS currently has four gardens, but in 2017 embarked on a fifth, a massive £30 million project to transform a huge, dilapidated Victorian estate in Worsley, Salford into a world-class garden. This series will follow the designers, engineers, gardeners and pigs (yes, you read that correctly) who are tasked with bringing this vast project to fruition.

The site was once home to a vast Victorian pile called Worsley New Hall, built by the Earl of Ellesmere. You imagine the chap had a few bob – the place was absolutely vast, and when the Queen came to visit, he dyed the canal blue in her honour. His gardens, comprising woodland, two walled gardens, and an ornamental lake, was tended by an outdoor staff of between 12 and 20 people. THAT’s wealth for you. I never employ more than six full-time gardeners at once, or I’d have to lay off some of the indoor servants. Sadly, the house is long gone – it fell into disrepair, before being destroyed by fire in the 1940s.

But the walled gardens still remain. At least, the walls do. They contain not so much garden as 80 years of detritus, weeds and shopping trolleys. But not for much longer – hurrah!

The projects curator is an affable and passionate fellow called Marcus Chilton-Jones. Somehow, with a name like that, you would just guess he’d work for the Royal Horticultural Society. He takes the cameras around the site and explains the vision for the gardens. One of the walled gardens will be given over to fruit and veg – though first, it’s necessary to remove the arsenic in the soil. Nobody wants to eat celery suffused with arsenic. Actually, nobody wants to eat celery at all.

The other walled garden will be an ornamental ‘paradise garden’ containing plants from Asia and the Americas. It will be designed by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith (again, inevitable that he’d be employed by the RHS). The walled gardens, by the way, are not small – each is the size of ten football pitches.

In all honestly, there’s not a lot of horticulture in this first episode. Any digging that goes on is of a more industrial variety – when you see a JCB doing its thing, you know they’re not planting a couple of geraniums. This is the heavy duty end of things – the aesthetic, finessing stuff will come in later episodes. But what this programme gives you is the joy of watching a project from the outset, so you can appreciate the scale and vision involved. There is also something deeply rewarding about watching passionate people doing work they clearly believe in.

And all of that is without even mentioning the pigs, who are the undoubted stars of the show!

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Jabbed: Inside Britain’s Vaccine Triumph, Monday 8th May, 10pm, Channel 4

What did you have? I’m a Moderna man myself. When I had it, it had only just been rolled out, so I felt pretty special, I can tell you. It was a bit like getting one of the first presses of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s album back in the 1980s. I was just that little bit ahead of the curve. One of the cool kids. (For the record, I never had an early press of Welcome to the Pleasuredome, am not one of the cool kids, and am consistently behind the curve, but you can’t take my Moderna vaccine away from me.)

Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter which one you had. They’re all life-savers, each jab a tiny liquid miracle that is testimony to the wonders of science and biotech and man’s ingenuity. I was jabbed by a man called Michael. I asked him his name, because I wanted to remember the man who bestowed upon me immunity from Covid-19.

Michael was the last link in the chain. This life-affirming and triumphant documentary looks at the people at the other end of the chain – the men and women who gave their all, and harnessed their considerable expertise, to ensure that we would get to where we are today. And at the very top of the chain is an extraordinary woman called Kate Bingham.

Kate Bingham is a venture capitalist. I don’t know what that means – I still don’t really understand what any job is that isn’t very easy to understand, like policeman or lumberjack or dog-walker. But I think she is involved in identifying and investing in biotech companies. Less than 18 months ago, she received an email from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, asking her to set up and run a vaccine task force for the UK. Her first reaction was that she was underqualified, and couldn’t do it. But her daughter tore a strip off her for not believing in herself, and then Boris Johnson called. She took the job.

Kate Bingham sees herself as fairly ordinary. “I bicycle to work, and occasionally at weekends I’ve gone bog-snorkelling.” For the elimination of doubt, bog-snorkelling is not normal behaviour, and if you’d told me that the woman we see on amateur footage riding her bike into a huge bog was going to hold our nation’s future in her hands, I’d have raised the white flag there and then.

But Kate Bingham is anything but normal. Hugely intelligent, passionate, hard-working and described more than once as ‘a force of nature’, she is an inspiration. And the complete, unbridled wonderfulness of this documentary is that it is about her, and a team of other incredible, brilliant, inspirational people, who came together and did something extraordinary that has saved an immeasurable number of lives. It is almost impossible to watch this film and not be bowled over.

We hear from the men and women who came together early in 2020, and started planning how we would vaccinate our way out of the pandemic. This is the story of how they sourced the vaccines, and selected which horses to back. (If you’ve not had the jab yet, don’t worry, you’re not injected with actual horses). Of how they looked at everything from the buying of freezers to the sourcing of vials. Of how they recruited people for test studies, and of how they felt when the results of those tests came back.

But while there is much to delight in, this programme also contains some reasons for gloom. Not least the fact that some of the people who we should be lauding, whose praises we should be singing from the rooftops, people to whom we should be erecting statues in every town centre from here to John O’Groats, have instead been vilified in the press and the court of public opinion. They include Kate Bingham herself, who was forced to stand down from her position as chair of the vaccine task force without being able to see the job through. And for reasons which are so tenuous they don’t even qualify as ‘spurious’.

Never mind. She’d done enough by then, as this documentary makes clear. I just hope she goes on to get the recognition she deserves.

The best… and the rest:

This is just about the busiest week on TV in years. I have no idea why quite so many new series are starting, it feels like Christmas (not least because it’s so ruddy cold for May!)

Saturday 8th May

Katharine: The Compassionate Duchess, 9pm, Channel 5: A look at the life of the Duchess of Kent, who has dedicated her life to helping others, and managed to be an exemplary royal ambassador while doing things her own way.

Sunday 9th May

Journeys into the Wild 1/8, 8pm, BBC Two: Wildlife presenters revisit some of their most memorable animal encounters, looking at archive footage from past series. Tonight we hear from Gordon Buchanan, Chris Packham and Steve Backshall.

The Pursuit of Love 1/3, 9pm, BBC One: A star-studded adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel, with Lily James and Emily Beecham playing two veery different cousins living in 1920s Oxfordshire. Co-stars include Dominic West, Freddie Fox, Andrew Scott, and Emily Mortimer, who also adapted and directed the series.

Gods of Snooker 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary series looking at the popularity of snooker in the 1980s and onwards. Tonight, how the sport’s rise to prominence coincided with the emergence of a certain unpredictable Ulsterman called Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.

SAS: Who Dares Wins, 9pm, Channel 4: Sixth series of the show which sees volunteers subjected to an unbelievably tough regime by former SAS trainers, to see if they have what it takes to join the elite squad. The toughest show on television, and there’s not even a prize at the end.

Cruising with Jane McDonald 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: The chanteuse embarks on her squillionth cruise, this time to the Caribbean. Do you think she ever gets fed up with it all?

Monday 10th May

Between the Covers, 7:30pm, BBC Two: Sara Cox returns with what amounts to a televised book club, albeit with some rather excellent celebrity guests. Tonight, they include Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Geidroyc, Oti Mabuse and Rick Edwards.

Three Families 1/2, 9pm, BBC One: Two-part drama about the campaign to relax abortion laws in Northern Ireland, told from the viewpoint of three families involved. Starring Colin Morgan, Sinead Keenan and Owen McDonnell.

The Queen and Her Cousins with Alexander Armstrong, 9pm, ITV: Programme delayed from last month following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, originally reviewed here.

Motherland, 9pm, BBC Two: Return of the excellent comedy about the joys (or lack thereof) of parenthood, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Diane Morgan. Tonight… lice.

Inside No. 9, 9:30pm, BBC Two: Return of the consistently inventive darkly comic anthology from the twisted minds of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. Tonight, a diamond heist goes badly wrong.

Tuesday 11th May

Hospital 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: Series seven of the documentary series following the day-to-day realities of working for the NHS. Not surprisingly, tonight’s programmer looks at the small matter of the pandemic and its effects.

Wednesday 12th May

Martin Lewis’ Extreme Saves, 8:30pm, ITV: The money-saving expert meets people who go to extremes tio save money, including the woman who swears by reusable toilet roll. Ugh.

Danny Boy, 9pm, BBC Two: Toby Jones and Anthony Biyle star in this feature-length, fact-based drama about a soldier’s journey from medal-winning hero to alleged battlefield killer, and the legal fight that ensued.

Trevor McDonald and Charlene White: Has George Floyd Changed Britain?, 9pm, ITV: Approaching the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent fallout, the presenters explore the reality of what it means for life in the UK, and whether anything will really change.

Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause, 9pm, Channel 4: The presenter reflects on her own struggles with the menopause, including hot flushes, depression, and confusion, and asks if we’re doing enough to help women through this potentially traumatic time.

Thursday 13th May

A Year in Kew Gardens 1/4, 8pm, Channel 5: New series following life on a 320-park that contains some of the most diverse plant life on earth, fiolmed over 12 months. Tonight, in the world-famous Palm House, a banana plant is threatening to smash through the ceiling.

Britain’s Biggest families: 31 Kids and Counting the Pennies, 9pm, ITV: Documentary following some of the nation’s largest broods, and finding out what it takes to budget for such a household. Reusing toilet paper, perhaps?

Friday 14th May

Inside Culture with Mary Beard, 7:30pm, BBC Two: Series three of the discussion show, this week’s episode looks at how we remember. Guests include poet Lemn Sissay and actor Jane Horrocks.

Gregg Wallace: Big Weekends Away 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: New series of the travel show which sees Gregg the Egg visiting European cities to examine their history, culture and, of course, cuisine. Tonight: Athens.

Tom Allen’s Quizness, 8pm, Channel 4: General knowledge gameshow with a difference. Apparently “the more answers the quizzers know, the dafter they must look to prove it.” Eh? The marvellous Tom Allen presents.

The World’s Most Scenic Railway Journeys 1/7, 9pm, Channel 5: The beautifully shot series returns, with this opener covering the majestic railways around Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island.

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