Strictly Come Chelsea by Victoria Summerley

February 18, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

This piece is another act of dedication and concern from Victoria Summerley, who should have been packing for a much needed holiday rather than writing for us – and hopefully, for the RHS judges. (Her holidaying around means she will be unable to respond to any comments of queries on this piece)

Her last piece got record responses, in both viewing numbers and comments, so it is clear that this is an issue the thinkingardens readers – amateur gardeners, bloggers, garden designers, editors and writers – care deeply about. A strong message came over to me for the RHS regarding the judging and that is – publish. 

And then this – well, thinkingardens readers – we say yes????

Anne Wareham, editor

Chelsea 8 copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley:

So, Strictly Come Chelsea? Or perhaps the The Gold Medal Factor? Or what about Britain’s Got Garden Design Talent?

I’m being mischievous, of course. However, the idea of having guest judges at the Chelsea Flower Show was one of the issues raised at the RHS Show Garden Judging Review Forum last week, and as you can imagine, it provoked quite a lot of discussion.
First, the practical points. Some people (mainly judges, I seem to recall) felt that guest judges might not use the same criteria – they wouldn’t be singing from the same hymn sheet, to employ a useful cliche.

This is quite an important point. Chelsea show gardens are not judged against each other – the judges do not come along and say: “That garden is better than this one, so that garden gets a gold and this one gets a silver.”

The designers are competing with themselves: they submit a brief, and the judges decide whether they have succeeded in bringing that vision to life. The level of medal indicates how well they’ve succeeded.

It’s a bit like when you do a music exam, if any of you remember your Grade Two clarinet, or the hell of piano arpeggios. The examiner doesn’t compare your performance to anyone else’s, they just assess how well you measured up in the various sections – pieces, scales, aural tests, sight-reading etc. You’re awarded points out of a certain total for each bit, and the examiner writes comments on each section as well.

(Incidentally, I think there is a very good model here for providing judging feedback, but we’ve been there and done that, so I’ll move on.)

Chelsea 9 copyright Anne Wareham

Therefore it’s important that the judges know what their job is supposed to entail. It was felt that this might be even more problematic if judges from abroad were invited to take part because they were likely to be least familiar with the Chelsea ethos.

The next point was: should these guest judges – whom, one assumes, might not necessarily be expert in landscaping, horticulture or construction – be given a vote? (My personal view is, yes, of course they should. What’s the point of having a judge who doesn’t vote? It’s only one vote – and if it’s a very eccentric one, then that’s what the Moderators are there for: to make sure that judging is consistent.)

Last point: who should these guest judges be? You couldn’t just invite any old Tom, Dick and Simon Cowell along, or it would damage the credibility of the RHS judges.

Suggestions from the floor seemed to favour people who had some background in the visual arts, such as architects – Richard Rogers, for example – designers or photographers, and I think these would be logical choices.

There is a precedent for guest judges at Chelsea – I know the judging panel for the trade stalls usually has someone who is an expert on retail display, such as the person in charge of window-dressing at one of the big London stores, such as Harrods or Selfridges. This makes perfect sense, because they have a knowledge of the subject.

What would be the point of a guest show garden judge, though? Would they actually bring anything useful to the debate? Personally, I think they might, and more importantly, they might bring with them a whole new audience for gardening.

That’s important, because gardeners tend to preach to the converted. If I was the RHS, I would want to see Chelsea migrating from the green and pleasant ghetto of the gardening pages, and onto the fashion spreads, the sports sections, the arts pages.

Chelsea 10 copyright Anne Wareham

But it would depend who they were.

Let’s take Terence Conran as an example. He has a distinguished design background AND he’s won gold medals for his Chelsea show garden designs. It’s difficult to think of anyone on the British design scene who has a better knowledge of the Chelsea routine without actually being a judge or a member of the RHS.
On the face of it, he’s the perfect choice – but would he be able to offer anything new, or surprising?

Wouldn’t it be better to have someone like shoe designer Jimmy Choo (“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” murmured Jekka McVicar) or Vivienne Westwood, or Stella McCartney, who might – in the process of a celebrity interview, say – be able to play a more evangelical role outside the horticultural box?

Or Elton John, whose mini-Alhambra at his home in Windsor was installed at the instigation of Rosemary Verey. Or Julian Clary, who is restoring the garden of Noel Coward’s 15th century manor house in Kent, which he bought five years ago.

When people started batting names around at the forum last week, one of the judges said, in somewhat Lady Bracknellesque tones: “This isn’t Strictly Come Dancing, you know.”

No, but just think! Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli screaming at each other alongside Michael Balston and Andrew Wilson. Mud-wrestling match, anyone?

All right, all right, I’m only JOKING, for heaven’s sake.

Victoria Summerley is an executive editor of The Independent and edits the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. She opens her garden in London for the NGS.

blog – her blog is Victoria’s Backyard

PS. This post, like the last,  has attracted a great many readers and a lot of comment. But I do wonder why that is all taking place here rather than on the RHS’s own website? Members and fellow professionals could have been/could be invited to discuss the issues there. editor

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