BBC’s “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” Educates, Informs and Entertains, Brilliantly.

Monty Don's Italian GardensWatching Monty Don amble lovingly through some of Italy’s most spectacular gardens is rather like watching Bruno Ganz’s angel experiencing the rapture of finally falling in love in Wings Of Desire.

You feel that here’s a man who’s spent all his life burdened with a passion that he somehow couldn’t quite put his finger on. And the sense of joy now that he’s unearthed it is palpable. This man lives and breathes gardening. And it’s infectious. Or rather, he makes it infectious.

Like all the best ideas it seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s slightly surprising that a programme like this hasn’t already been made. But that of exploring Italy via its gardens is an inspired one. And, like most apparently simple things, he could all too easily have got it horribly wrong. Happily though, Don strikes exactly the right balance between the programme’s different elements.

Water, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is by far and away our planet’s most precious resource. So naturally it was the currency through which the Italian aristocracy expressed its wealth. What better way to do so than by extravagantly wasting it as wantonly as possible? And few things waste water quite like an Italian garden.

Episode 1 was centred around Rome, and as he walked us around the grandeur of the Villa D’Este there, Don put the opulence of the garden into the context of the history and the society that helped produce it. But he never lectures, nor do you have the sense that he’s merely showing off. Instead, he’s simply explaining how something that extraordinary came into being.

It’s not a question of him being interested in history and gardening, rather it’s his conviction that it’s not possible to be interested in one without the other. And watching him elaborate and hearing him explain, it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Similarly, when in subsequent episodes he talks about food and the produce from the land, it’s not yet another area of interest, it’s all part and parcel of what gardening is all about. It’s all of it born of the same passion.

Crucially though, his enthusiasm is tempered by an intelligence that has the capacity to stop, stand back and calmly survey. It’s an intelligence in other words that’s been molded by experience and understands the need to always take your time before reaching any conclusions. Were he back at Cambridge, one of his more annoying classmates might proffer that his is the perfect mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian urges.

Before ever he got the gardening bug, and after a host of other things, he began work as a jobbing writer, and you can get a taste of his talents and this programme here.

If you missed it first time around it’s currently being re-shown on BBC4 on Saturdays. It’s programmes like this, and people like Don that give the BBC its august reputation. And it’s one of the reasons that it continues to be the yardstick against which all other broadcasters are measured. I hope they appreciate him.

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