Sissinghurst – BBC4 reviewed by Darryl Moore

May 3, 2009

in Media Reviews, Reviews

Contemporary television appears to have been infected with Olympic fever. It now seems mandatory for every programme have a competitive angle to it. To simply inform, educate or entertain is no longer enough – there now needs to be winners and losers as well. Consequently traditional genres have dissolved, mutating into an ubiquitous hybrid format, fusing together documentary, drama and game shows.

BBC 4’s eight part series ‘Sissinghurst’ proved not to be immune to this malaise. To give a show about the famous estate a contemporary relevance, the producers obviously felt that it needed to be pitched as a battle between the current custodians the National Trust, in their role preserving the nations heritage, and its previous family heritage. A struggle between conservative tradition and progressive change, with competing factions attempting to claim the soul of Sissinghurst as their own. As if that were not enough, the series also managed to shoehorn in as many aspects of popular BBC programmes as possible, creating a melange of The Apprentice, Master Chef, Gardeners World and Who Do You Think You Are?

Of all the NT properties to focus upon, perhaps Sissinghurst is the most favourable for such a setting, as it provides a sense of garden glamour and celebrity sparkle. Since its creation by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930’s, Sissinghurst has become an iconic example of a quintessential English garden, with an international reputation and large popular appeal. It’s charm plays upon the association of artists with gardens, which despite being part of an outmoded romanticism, still holds a certain fascination in the garden world today. A sense of sensation also surrounds the couple’s aristocratic bohemian glitz, with their infamous sexual exploits serving to enhance their artistic reputations. A sense of kudos surrounds the family literary pedigree, running from Vita and Harold, through son Nigel, to grandson Adam and his sister Juliet. Adam’s wife Sarah Raven’s reknown as a TV gardening presenter, provides a popular media angle, adding to the televisual appeal so necessary for the all important ratings.

Structurally the series sets up a conflict of interests, pitting corporate bureaucracy against dynastic authority, in a contest for the legacy of the estate and how it should be managed and presented to the public in the future. Along with many other large estates which experienced the post-war decline of the upper class, the loss of family fortunes, and rising maintenance costs, the property was donated to the National Trust in 1965, who have preserved it in their inimical manner as an ideal snapshot of a bygone era. As such the programme raises important questions about the dynamic evolving natures of both historic and contemporary gardens in the face of increasing economic and ecological uncertainty. Resistance to change may be important in preserving a sense of history and identity, but freezing gardens in time runs the risk of creating branded theme parks, unable to adapt to age and cultural changes in tourist demographics, travel restrictions in a post-peak oil world, and the horticultural challenges posed by climate change. Therefore flexibility and adaptation are necessity, but obviously the forms they can take are highly contested grounds.

It is this premise which provides the conflictual base of the series. Adam’s return to the family pile with Sarah and kids, as the live-in donor family, is intended to signal a reforming force invading the property’s placid complacency, attempting to honour the family heritage, by remodelling the estate according to their version of authenticity. Adam’s dream to return the estate to a working farm in the manner it was run in his grandparents’ day, and Sarah’s attempts to introduce site produced food into the restaurant via a modernised menu, are the challenges the programme proposes. The narrative is driven by Adam and Sarah’s meetings, discussions and arguments with NT middle management on one hand, and staff members head gardener Alexis, and chef Steve, on the other.

The format mixes fly-on-the-wall footage with confessional interviews, to allow ‘candid’ insight into growing tensions and resentments. But as a narrative device this is spreading interest rather too thinly, considering nothing much develops across eight episodes. Too much reiteration tends towards irritation, which is not alleviated by the additional story lines of bit-part players.

What is actually at play throughout, is the display of the different incompatible positions held by parties involved in conflictual scenarios. Adam and Sarah represent individualists who believe that their reformism (albeit conservative) is correct because it represents a purity of personal expression, unfettered by authoritarian values and bureaucratic policies. The very policies which underpin the hierarchical organisation of the NT, whose mission is to preserve and conserve a particular version of local and national identity, and history, in an economically sustainable manner which meets the needs and demands of their members and funders. Any change on their behalf will always be methodical and procedure-bound change. The other key players Alexis and Steve reflect an egalitarian viewpoint (albeit one peppered with a dose of old fashioned class antagonism). They legitimate their actions through an appeal to the desires of the public. They invoke the supposedly democratic authority of the masses to endorse their inflexible rationale, employing a circular logic to justify their resistance to change (i.e. so many people visit the garden because they like it as it is/the public buy the food so therefore they like it).

Ultimately, each party is playing to win in a zero sum game, where compromise and co-operation are unthinkable, and consequently a stand-off is the only ultimate outcome. The show ends at pretty much the same point as where it began, give or take a field of vegetables, which was in accord with the existing NT Plot to Plate strategy. Thus according to the series’ internal logic, it is something of disappointment, failing to deliver any real sense of resolution. Perhaps most telling is a conversation in the last episode, between Adam and Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, which made it apparent that nothing of any consequence was ever going to come of the project. Obviously such a revelation earlier on would have made further watching pointless. So after four hours, viewers have been lead through a highly edited year, which rather than exploring the complexities of the issues raised, instead served mainly to give promotional platforms to the NT, Sarah Raven’s business, and perhaps the most important product tie-in, Adam’s book, ‘Sissinghurst, An Unfinished Story’.

Ultimately the over-egged, warts-and-all approach to the fractious situation failed to be convincing in its attempt to create high drama. A sense of stage managed complicity was too apparent, and was further confirmed by the appearance of an article by Adam in the NT’s Spring 2009 magazine,  in which his positive enthusing about project was complimented with comments from NT property manager Sally Bushell stating how exciting and successful the joint venture was for all parties.

Obviously such a disparity between reality and fiction is a normal part television’s suspension of disbelief, but it meant that an opportunity to address the implications of garden legacies was rather squandered. Many of the issues around conservation policy were more poignantly made by a programme on the restoration of NT property Ightham Moat several years ago. If the producers of Sissinghurst really wanted to contest the divide between preservation and progress, then perhaps a more apt opponent would have been Roy Strong whose vision for the future of the Laskett is a formidably progressive consideration of gardens as evolving entities rather than Disneyfied stage sets.

The most interesting aspect about gardens the series did actually illuminate was both the shared and personal meanings they embody, reflecting the extent to which gardens are heterotopias – sites layered with multiple meanings for different reasons, for different people. A revelatory moment came for Adam in a meeting with a visitor who explained her relationship to the garden via her relationship with her mother. It provided both him and the viewer insight into the validity of the differences of meaning, experience and value, provided not only by Sissinghurst, but all gardens. The fact that gardens are experienced and enjoyed contingently, despite the fact that apparently conflicting views are held, is a strength of the way in which gardens provide an insight into our relationships with each other as well as the environments we inhabit.

Darryl Moore

Daryl Moore Design blog

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