The Great British Rake Off!

Killer heels, yogic chanting, llama manure – they’re just some of the secret weapons rival gardeners resort to in BBC2′s Big Allotment Challenge

  • A new series on BBC2 will put gardeners to the test
  • The green fingered contestants will demonstrate skills from veg growing to flower arranging
  • Contestants on the show warn that there will be a few tears and tantrums


PUBLISHED: 22:30, 4 April 2014 | UPDATED: 22:30, 4 April 2014

We’ve had The Great British Bake Off, now it’s what you might call The Great British Rake Off as a new BBC show pits more members of the public – this time gardeners – against each other in the hobby they love.

And The Big Allotment Challenge is not for the weak-willed, insist the competitors – there are plenty of tears among the tomatoes and turnips.

‘This is the tough end of reality television,’ says Edd Curbishley, a Northamptonshire sales manager who competes in the show in partnership with his yoga teacher wife Harshani.

Fern Britton with the judging panel of The Big Allotment Challenge, from left to right, Fern Britton, Jim Buttress, Thane Prince, Jonathan Moseley

Fern Britton with the judging panel of The Big Allotment Challenge, from left to right, Fern Britton, Jim Buttress, Thane Prince, Jonathan Moseley

‘It’s nothing like those namby-pamby bakery programmes. This was four months of solid graft, and everyone rose to the challenge.’

In the six-part series, presented by Fern Britton and filmed last year during the growing season, nine pairs of gardeners are given a patch of ground in the scenic gardens of Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire.


JIM BUTTRESS A Royal Horticultural Society judge and former head of Royal Parks Greenwich, Jim’s a huge fan of  grow-your-own and is a regular sight around the country judging allotment produce in his trademark bowler hat.

THANE PRINCE Cook and author Thane used to appear on Ready, Steady Cook and is best known for her books on chutneys and jams. She spent ten years running a cookery school in Suffolk and now lives in London.

JONATHAN MOSELEY A resident of the Peak District and one of Britain’s leading floral designers, Jim has been inspiring and entertaining audiences  with his demonstrations, workshops  and classes for more than 20 years.

They each have 15 weeks to work on their allotment for up to 30 hours a week in a bid to come up with prize-winning fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Most of the contestants spend their entire weekends there after a week doing their day job.

And not only do they have to be green-fingered – they must also show culinary and flower-arranging skills.

Each week the contestants face three challenges, ranging from showing off their radishes and making bouquets from flowers they’ve grown to coming up with delicious conserves made from their produce.

There are three expert judges: the Royal Horticultural Society’s Jim Buttress, who looks at the quality of their produce, floral designer Jonathan Moseley, who gives the verdict on their flower arranging, and celebrity cook Thane Prince, who tastes their curds and jams.

Silver-haired Jim has already been dubbed the Paul Hollywood of the gardening world, and several contestants go a bit dizzy over him.

‘Oh, I’d start a Jim Buttress fan club,’ says Michelle Stacey, a mother-of-two from Bexley in Kent. ‘He has a way about him you just can’t help loving. There’s an attraction there that most women will get. He has the highest accolades in horticulture but he’s never condescending.’

But the real stars are the great British public, as assembled by the producers. Take Edd, 53, and Harshani, 45, who as well as trying to grow produce on a weekly timetable have the extra headache of trying to time their planting in  tune with the moon’s phases.

Contestants - Edd Curbishley and his wife Harshani

Contestants – Edd Curbishley and his wife Harshani

‘We’ve gardened bio-dynamically as a hobby for quite a few years now,’ says Harshani. ‘There’s a two-week window when you can plant every month, and you’re meant to plant different things – flowers, fruits, roots – on different days. It’s all plotted out with science, looking at the light levels and energy to give them their best harvest.’

But that isn’t an easy system to follow when you’re living more than an hour away from the patch you’re tending.

‘For the TV series, we only managed to do about 50 per cent of our growing bio-dynamically,’ says Harshani sadly.

‘We both work so we weren’t always able to get there when we needed to.’ However, the couple have a secret weapon: Harshani’s yoga mantras, which she chants to the plants to give them good energy. ‘It’s something I do in the greenhouse at home,’ she says. ‘Plants are living things and they like that energy.’ And what did their rivals think of this Prince Charles-like behaviour? ‘Erm, they thought it was a bit different,’ says Edd.

But they aren’t the only unconventional allotment growers among the show’s contestants. Michelle Stacey and her mother-of-four sister-in-law Sally Green, both 44, are blonde, glamorous and like to wear vintage dresses and heels while gardening.

‘We use our heels as diggers and false nails to scoop up seeds. We’re certainly not stereotypical gardeners – when we first turned up on our allotment we got some funny looks’
Michelle Stacey

‘We use our heels as diggers and false nails to scoop up seeds,’ says Michelle, laughing. ‘We’re certainly not stereotypical gardeners – when we first turned up on our allotment we got some funny looks, but once people got to know us they could see that we knew what we were doing.

She continues, ‘There are lots of stereotypes about gardeners; on TV they’re usually men wearing flat caps. We want to prove a point – that anyone can garden. I get sick of the shows where only middle-class men are allowed to have an opinion on gardening.’

Their passion for gardening started when Michelle’s parents got an allotment. ‘When they first started we all said, “What have you got an allotment for?” But then we fell in love with it. It’s a brilliant way of getting organic fruit and veg without paying supermarket prices.’

They admit to having been among the teariest of the contestants. ‘There were lots of tears, especially when someone had to go,’ says Michelle. But she adds, ‘We know we look a bit fluffy but we knew we could use the fact that people would underestimate us to our advantage.’

Sally Green and her sister-in-law Michelle Stacey

Sally Green and her sister-in-law Michelle Stacey

Others have secret weapons of their own. For teacher Kate Bennett and her best friend of over 30 years, retired university lecturer Eleanor Waterhouse, it’s llama droppings. The pair, from Winchester, Hampshire, both 63, each have a llama: Latimer (named after the character Lumpy Latimer from a Joyce Grenfell sketch) and Llama (pronounced ‘Yama’, in the Spanish fashion).

‘I found out the properties of llama droppings when I went to a llama farm and the farmer collected some, saying it can sell on the internet for a fantastic price,’ says Kate.

‘A few years ago my husband and I got the chance to buy a neighbour’s field so we thought we couldn’t do better than buy an aesthetic lawnmower – a llama. So we bought two boys, and Eleanor and I collect their droppings and use it on our garden. It’s good for everything from root vegetables to roses and was our secret weapon; we knew no one else would have it.’

Meanwhile, IT specialists and best friends Gary Murdock, 46, and Pete Taylor, 42, have more of a game plan than a secret weapon. The pair, who share an allotment in Hove, East Sussex, admit their main aim is to not come last.

‘We specialise in doing as little as possible but having successful results,’ says Pete. ‘We have our own website which shows our successes and our mistakes; we’re open about how rubbish we are.’

Rather than working, they enjoyed the social aspect of the show; all the contestants have come away as firm friends after spending so many weekends together. ‘The closest we came to hard work was watching everyone else doing it,’ adds Pete.

The pair are a contrast to the duo the others deemed the most competitive: teacher Ed Bond, 37, and his wife’s best friend’s father Alex Lomax, who’s retired.

The Wiltshire pair had never gardened together before the show – Alex, 68, stepped in when Ed’s first partner pulled out because of the time commitment needed – but they quickly found a common love in organisation.

While other contestants jot their plans on the backs of envelopes, these two have whiteboards. ‘Why would you enter a competition and not want to win?’ says Alex. ‘We were competitive in an open way and if anyone asked us about our plans we’d generally tell them. And we helped another team out when they lost some seedlings. I’d say a few of the teams were probably even more competitive but with a more covert style.’

Even these two had their teary-eyed moments, though. ‘Erm yes, when we realised we were candidates for elimination and also when some of our friends went,’ says Alex.

But despite the rivalry and tears, this appears to have been a peculiarly friendly competition. ‘Yes, there were 18 of us and we were all very different in many ways, but we had one thing in common,’ says Kate. ‘We all love growing.’

More Manure on the BBC

06.04 Sunday Times

North Anston: Jonathan to star in BBC Two’s Big Allotment Challenge

04.04 Worksop Guardian

Ready, Steady, Grow!

04.04 Prima (i)

04.04 Prima (ii) 04.04 Prima (iii)

The Big Allotment Challenge

03.04 - Grow Your Own (i)

Shut Your Facebook is like a yoof doc directed by David Cronenberg

Idiots are everywhere in this Channel 4 show – loudly blathering about the fluff found in their navels with their phones aloft

by Filipa Jodelka, The Guardian, Saturday 5 April 2014

Naked BobLook around you. Idiots, everywhere. Loudly blathering about the finer qualities of the bit of fluff found in their navels, with their phones aloft, a testament to the unshakeable belief they are of any interest whatsoever. Five fine contenders for being drowned in their own Cornflakes can be found on Shut Your Facebook (Monday, 10.50pm, Channel 4), which takes a look at the sorriest and most self-obsessed social-media fiends and the online dickery around which their lives revolve. The show aims to embarrass them into changing their ways, but there’s a point of no return for redemption, and these people are way beyond it.

Sweetly gurning inane questions at this bunch of C-U-on-Twitters is Chelsee Healey (of paparazzi fame) and a naked man called Naked Bob. Ostensibly, Naked Bob is there to deliver naked truth with percentages and stats and that, but in reality it’s more like the makers had £20 left over in the budget for a low-tier male model and an educational box to tick.

But back to the conveyor belt of twerps, featuring Christian, Charlie and Braden, or vacant plots 1, 2 and 3. Christian’s life is documented through reams of knob-themed pictures: him clutching a giant inflatable knob, with his knob out; his knob as a filling in a knob sandwich, etc. In fact, anything to fill the void where his personality should be, which is as bare as ground zero at Cher-knob-yl. Next along is Braden, who can’t go a second without refreshing his various feeds. Even during a romantic meal he barely makes it past the prawn cocktail before groping for his phone like a drowning man for driftwood. Then comes Charlie, who pulls a stupid pose every time a camera is pointed at her. This, if your worth is quantified by Facebook, is serious business.

This lot are benign, good-time idiots. They’re doing what people have always done, but more publicly, and with more vividly coloured alcohol. It’s towards the end that the show begins to descend into the dark depths of humanity before eventually plummeting face-first onto Satan’s musty carpet. They ease us in gently with Domonique and her virtual swarm of thirsty men, who want to put their penises in, on or near the taut golden body she posts thousands of pictures of online. On Instagram, she looks like a Kardashian exiled from the klan for being too fit. IRL? Er, a little less so. Chelsee diplomatically suggests a more honest approach might be to create a profile that shows her “character” and “interests” and all that other stuff which is about 4,000 times less attractive than her pneumatic bosom. Unfortunately, Domonique can’t hear the advice over the white noise of her own augmented ego.

But of all the pricks, by far the worst is Caolan, a vapid husk with the use, personality and looks of a medical waste bin of babies’ foreskins. Caolan, by the way, pronounces his name Kaolin, as in the clay-like substance associated with infant diarrhoea. This is where his self-awareness begins and ends. Caolan is Facebook-famous: the star and creator of an online show following him and other Facebook celebs (a sale rail of teen narcissists) around hotel rooms and champagne bars. Those Instagrammed cocktails don’t come cheap, and were funded by £5,000-worth of payday loans. Caolan is entirely unbothered; his reality is so distorted he can’t even fathom his debt as real, justifying for the first time in history the existence of violent bailiffs.

It’s all terribly sad; if only these lost souls could see their true worth, what unique snowflakes they are. Just kidding: their beings are so easily enveloped by hollow posturing and other equally moronic pursuits because there’s nothing else there. It’s empty space. The depth of their idiocy, combined with their eagerness to bare all for anyone who’ll watch must have programme makers giddy with excitement, particularly when you can drown out any cries of exploitation with a thumping soundtrack. Is this wrong? No. The people on-screen are cretins.

The American Heiress: the first ‘special relationship’?

Interview with TV Producer & Author Daisy Goodwin

British Weekly
Saturday, November 24, 2012
11:12 AM

“I got the idea about five years ago, when I was visiting Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the dukes of Marlborough,” says The American Heiress author Daisy Goodwin. “I saw the great Sargent portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her husband the 6th Duke of Marlborough and I thought it was a great starting point for a book. An American princess finding herself at sea in aristocratic England.”

The year is 1890 and Cora Cash, an American heiress, is in London to marry into the British aristocracy. Ivo, Duke of Warham, sweeps her off her feet. They marry and things change. He becomes distant as the English season heats up so does the potential for betrayals. Did Ivo really just marry her for her money?

The dialog is amusing and the story has the feel of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. The nouveau riche Americans wanted to show they were as good as the aristocrats so they used their money to marry them. It had its pitfalls as the married couples came from different worlds and countries. If you can’t wait until Downton returns in January read this over the holidays.

“I discovered a quarterly magazine published in the 1890s called Titled Americans, which was a Gilded Age version of,” says Goodwin. “In the front half were biogs of all the American women who had married into the aristocracy and at the back were profiles of the eligible bachelors still on the market, with the size of their estate and their credit worthiness. Not very romantic but a fascinating social document.”

“I read lots of books of the period,” says Goodwin. “Trollope, France Hodgson Burnett and, of course, Henry James. I also read lots of memoirs by American heiresses. The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt was very useful as was the memoir of Jennie Churchill – Winston’s mum. I also spend a whole day wearing an S bend corset in order to understand fully what it was like to be a woman of that era. Not being able to bend at the waist makes life seem very different.”

“I spent a lot of time at the London Library, the oldest private library in England, looking at ancient copies of the Illustrated London News,” says Goodwin. “You can learn a great deal from the small ads.”

“I have edited eight poetry anthologies, including 101 Poems to Save Your Life,” says Goodwin. “I have also written Silver River, a memoir, and I have been a regular columnist for the Sunday Times.”

Goodwin’s editor is Hope Dellon at St Martin’s Press. “Hope made me rewrite the last third of my book,” says Goodwin. “I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but I am very glad I listened to her as the book is so much better as a result. My advice to all authors is only listen to good advice. Because I have worked in television I am quite used to the editing process. It can be very helpful to have an outside point of view.”

“Hope made an offer for my book, and told me that she liked it because it was ‘Henry James without the boring bits.’

Goodwin has been shortlisted for the Galaxy Book of the Year Award. She lives in London.

Pah! I can outpace Wiggins in a polka-dot dress and stilettos

Pah! I can outpace Wiggins in a polka-dot dress and stilettos

Daisy Goodwin
The Sunday Times
Sunday, November 18, 2012

Aston Martin and Harley-Davidson salesmen feel a rush of adrenaline when a middle-aged man in a leather jacket approaches. They know that a man having his first intimations of mortality is seriously in need of horsepower.

But if you are a woman in the prime of life and already in possession of a lifetime’s worth of handbags, what is the thing that is going to stop time’s winged chariot rumbling away in your ear?

In my case it was the sturdy Dutch frame of a Sparta e-bike that made the pulse race and the credit card tingle.

An e-bike is not a virtual bike on which you cycle like Bradley Wiggins in cyberspace, but a regular bike with a battery pack, which means that you go twice as fast.

Read the original article here.

TV producer beats floods for Kennaway House appearance

TV producer beats floods for Kennaway House appearance

Diana Bowerman
Sidmouth Herald
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
12:00 PM

NO flooded rail line was going to prevent author and television producer Daisy Goodwin from speaking to an eager Sidmouth audience on Friday.

The founder of Silver River Productions hot-footed it across London from Waterloo to Paddington in order to arrive on time for the last in this year’s Meet the Author talks at Kennaway House.

A sell-out audience was there to hear about her debut novel, My Last Duchess, published in 2010 – before Downton Abbey reached the small screen – about Cora Cash, a vastly wealthy American heiress, whose mother is determined to marry her off to aristocracy.

In the 1890s of which the novel is set, there were plenty of titled Englishmen looking for new money to marry to keep their estates going, and soon Cora and Ivo, ninth Duke of Wareham, who meet through a riding accident, are married.

Born in 1961, Daisy, whose long list of credits as a TV editorial director includes Jamie’s Kitchen, Grand Designs and Home Front, got the idea for her first novel after a visit to Woodstock to give a talk about her memoir, Silver River.

At Blenheim Palace she saw a painting of the ninth Duke of Marlborough and his family by John Singer Sargent.

The Duke had a loveless marriage to the hugely wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, who brought a $100 million dowry with her.

“She was very classy and cultured and was astonished there was no hot water or bathrooms and the kitchen was half-a-mile from the dining room,” said Daisy, who carried out meticulous research for her novel.

“By 1910 over a quarter of the House of Lords had married American money. Stately homes in England would not be here without this money.”

She delighted her audience with tales from her research, and described the agony of trying to wear a Victorian corset that prevented women bending at the waist. Married Victorian women were not as innocent as people thought, with lots of ‘corridor creeping’ going on at night amongst the gentry.

Chairman of the 2010 Orange Prize panel for women’s fiction, Daisy said she liked books “that have a sparkle to them, a good story that is entertaining”.

An option to film her novel, called The American Heiress in the USA, has been taken out and Daisy says her Cora is a stronger woman than the Cora in Downton Abbey.

Her father was a film producer and her mother a journalist, and after gaining a degree in History at Cambridge and studying at Columbia Film School, Daisy began her TV career as an arts producer, making films about literary figures, devising Bookworm and The Nation’s Favourite Poems Initiative.

Married to TV executive Marcus Wilford, she has two daughters and is currently writing her second novel, about the Empress Elizabeth of Austria “the Diana of her day” and plans a sequel to My Last Duchess in the future.

Venus de Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe At Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

Venus de Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe At Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

Daisy Goodwin
The Daily Beast
Monday, August 27, 2012

One of the many stories that garland the legend of Marilyn Monroe is that the blonde actress used to have her shoes made with one heel half an inch shorter than the other, to give her that distinctive wiggle. But on the evidence of the many pairs of shoes exhibited at “Marilyn,” the fascinating exhibition currently running at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence, Monroe’s fabulously seductive walk was all her own work. The Florentine shoemaker made the star’s shoes for many of her most famous movies, including a pair of red stilettos covered in Swarovski crystals that made every female visitor to the exhibition swoon with envy. The heels are both an identical four inches high.

Monroe was smaller in person than on screen. (Sunset Boulevard / Corbis)


Ferragamo once wrote that the “women who come to me can be divided into the Cinderella, the Aristocrat, and the Venus … Venus is usually a great beauty, of glamour and sophistication, yet under a glittering exterior she is often a homebody, loving simple things.”

Monroe, who wore a size 6, was definitely in the Venus category. The opening image of the exhibition is a black-and-white clip from Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits, which was written for her by her third husband, Arthur Miller. She is dancing, silent and alone in a wooded glade, barefoot in a black dress. She is still at the height of her mature beauty, the hair a little longer than the ingénue curls of Bus Stop, and her figure just a shade more voluptuous—the camera, as ever, adores her, but it can’t help revealing Monroe’s inner sadness. Like that other famous blonde, Diana, princess of Wales, no amount of fame and adoration could fill the void left by an emotionally stunted childhood.

The exhibition constantly plays up the slightness of Monroe’s physical reality against her extraordinary screen presence. In the exhibit’s largest room, there is a screen playing clips of Marilyn’s most famous movie moments: as Sugar emerging through the smoke of the railway station in Some Like it Hot; as Lorelei Lee singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in pink satin with a chorus of men in white ties; as the unnamed girl in a white dress in The Seven Year Itch who stands over a subway grating when the train passes underneath, feeling the wind that blows up her skirt.

In the same room the curators display the original outfits that Monroe wore in those films. Many of these costumes—the pink satin column dress she wore for Gentleman Prefer Blondes and the gold lamé plunging halter neck she wore for There’s No Business Like Show Business were designed by the Hollywood designer William Travilla, who clearly understood how to showcase Monroe’s extraordinary assets. Although she seems voluptuous on screen, in reality Monroe was petite, only 5’3″ inches tall in her stockinged feet, 5’7″ in her Ferragamo heels, with a 23-inch waist. The dresses have been lent by collectors from all over the world, and it is the first time that so many of Monroe’s effects have been gathered in one place.

One dress that isn’t here in the original, because it is too fragile to be exhibited, is the dress that Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, at Madison Square Garden in 1962. That dress, made of sheer nude chiffon covered with rhinestones, is the screen goddess made flesh. The exhibition has the clip of her singing to the president, with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and we can see how the dress makes her look both naked and sparkling. It was one of her most seductive performances: the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called it “making love to the president in direct view of forty million people” (the event was televised) but it was to no avail. Rumor has it that Kennedy ended the affair and three months later, Monroe was dead, 50 years ago this month.

The way that Monroe fits into a tradition of tragic heroines who died for love is explored in the exhibition—there are references to Dido, La Dame aux Camellias, Cleopatra, and Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s novel in a translation by Francis Steegmuller, with an illustration by Gavarni on the cover, was in the small personal library that Monroe took with her everywhere. Eerily prescient is the picture that photographer Bert Stern took in Monroe’s final photo shoot, of Marilyn’s face in a rictus mask of abandonment surrounded by glitter and pearls. The curators, Sergio Risaliti and Stefania Ricci say that “the framing of her face, which has become a tragic mask, shows us a woman in sexual ecstasy, a Gorgon, a lifeless doll, a modern Ophelia.”

The exhibition features Monroe’s most memorable outfits—lent by collectors from around the globe—for her movies and magazine shoots. (Courtesy of Museo Salvatore Ferragamo)


The curators have chosen to represent Monroe’s death not with a CSI-type analysis of the evidence, but through the images and poetry of the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Alongside Pasolini’s poetry there is an installation of Marilyn’s deathbed with its twisted white sheets, evoking her potent cocktail of Eros and Thanatos.

The last room of the exhibition seeks to show the close connection between Marilyn and the Renaissance culture that had its birthplace in Florence. We are shown Stern’s famous picture of Marilyn standing on the beach wearing a cardigan, her bare legs slightly crossed, alongside a reproduction of Botticelli’s La Primavera—the most famous painting in the nearby Uffizi gallery. Side by side, you can see real parallels between the two blonde Venuses rising from the sea. There is also the Roman marble bust of the dying Alexander, which the photographer Cecil Beaton drew upon in his quest to represent the “spiritual intensity” of Marilyn’s face. We are shown parallels between images of Monroe and the sensuous nudes of Canova and Boucher. There is an extraordinary pairing of Tom Kelley’s famous Playboy nude of Monroe against a red satin background and the penitent Magdalene by the 17th-century Florentine painter Francesco Furini, both women holding a similar pose and an air of languid sensuality.

It is this final room that is the raison d’être for hosting this exhibition, dedicated to an American Venus, in the former cellars of the Palazzo Spini Feroni, supported by the Florence’s city council. As the exhibition’s catalog says, Monroe “has become an icon that does not just belong to America but to the entire world, and is linked to our Renaissance culture in such a particular and distinctive way.”

There is another consideration too. Upstairs in the Ferragamo boutique, it is possible to buy limited edition handmade replicas of the high-heeled pumps that Ferragamo designed for the star, with a special half-wood half-metal construction that made them comfortable in spite of the extreme thinness of the heel. The glamorous Russian sales assistant reverently brings out replicas of the red crystal-studded shoes that Marilyn wore in There’s No Business Like Show Business. It turns out that my 11-year-old daughter shares a shoe size with Monroe, and as she slips them on and starts to take teetering steps across the thick pile carpet, I ask the Russian what the secret is to walking in Marilyn’s shoes. “You must start young,” she says, “and practice every day of your life.”

Daisy Goodwin is a novelist and TV producer.