Percy Thrower was the country’s best known gardener for the three decades after the early 1950s. Not only did he write books and columns for newspapers and magazines but he also fronted the leading TV programme about gardening. Unlike its predecessor Gardening Club, which was featured in a recent post, Gardeners’ World was filmed in real gardens with real borders and real plants…and it was filmed in colour!
Read on to find out more about Gardeners’ World, Percy’s business empire, and how and why the BBC eventually “sacked” gardening’s national treasure….
Believe it or not, Alan Titchmarsh started his gardening career as the editor of Percy’s books. He recalls the excitement of seeing colour for the first time in gardening programmes: “what a gift to a gardening broadcaster to be able to say… Just look at this border and there it will be in all its glory. It makes things so much easier to get across because people could see why he was so keen on something -not that excitement was something that was embodied by Gardeners’ World in those days – but enthusiasm was.” [BBC 2]
One of the side-effects of moving to colour was that the studio garden was no longer credible And the BBC looked for a real plot near the studios in Birmingham to use as a base. They found an overgrown allotment, and then expanded until they had six. But unfortunately they forgot that gardens, particularly ones which are to be seen on television, need constant attention. With no one allocated to look after it the area soon became weed-infested, and viewers noticed. Complaints began to arrive….. and so, before long, the programme began to be broadcast from Percy’s own garden at ‘The Magnolias’, the house a few miles from Shrewsbury that had been designed by him and his wife Connie between 1963 and 1968.
This was not as simple as it might seem. As can be seen from the photo the Outside Broadcast Unit needed large crews, not the one or two we might associate with recording today. This meant there had to be parking for three or four pantechnicons, room for a crew of more than 30 people – cameramen, sound engineers, recording engineers, production team, and riggers who had to manhandle not only the heavy cameras but the thick cables to be connected to the power supplies. It also meant stable wide pathways which could bear the weight of the cameras. Hand-held cameras did not come in until the very end of the 1970s and Barry Edgar one of the producers regretfully commented: “what gardens we could have covered if we had had some of these!” (Gardeners’ World Through The Years, page 9) . The whole process was made even more difficult because of the expense of moving such an enormous amount of equipment and people, so the gardens had to be big enough to have interest for two complete programmes to be recorded on any one visit.
There were no scripts. Bill Duncalf, another producer, recalls that “Percy works entirely spontaneously.” This made him “so easy to work with and so proficient at the way he handles exhibits in front of the camera.” For much of the time, remembers Titchmarsh, “Percy performed alone, with a matchless sense of timing. Not only was his richly accented delivery beautifully paced, but it could also come out the second, without the need of a stopwatch…” His voice was “rich and deep in tone, thanks to years of pipe smoking, and it seemed to me that he’d been broadcasting for so long that he couldn’t stop.”
Sadly almost none of the vintage episodes were archived so there is almost no record – and the little footage that survives has lost the sound. However “the steady stream of letters” he received from viewers led him to write a guide-book to the programme in 1973.
It has a Preface by Bill Duncalf explaining how the programme was made, and a single page introduction by Percy himself outlining how he planned to give the viewer “all that is best in present-day gardening.” The rest of the book is made up of brief notes on monthly tasks illustrated with line drawings of Percy doing some of them. It also included a map of “The Magnolias” so that viewers could follow his progress around the garden during the broadcast.
Percy soon became a familiar face well beyond Gardeners World. He was on his way to becoming a National Treasure. But he also began to capitalise on his reputation and ventured into commercial horticulture. This began to push the BBC to its limits.
A quiet drink in a pub with a friend who was a travel agent in Shrewsbury led to him “earning a few coppers on the side” as an expert garden guide taking tours to Dutch bulb fields with [I kid you not] Derby Airways. At first ” Everyone seemed to enjoy it and it was certainly good value for money,” but once a larger operator ” got in on the act and also began hiring Derby Airways … we began to find that if an aeroplane broke down it was always us that suffered.” He found himself “having dear old ladies at the airport who had never flown before when it would be announced that there was to be a half an hour’s delay in the flight. We would provide them with a glass of brandy to make up for the wait, but then after another half an hour’s delay they wanted a second brandy. After a further two hours’ delay they felt entitled to a meal – and looked to us to provide it. After several of these experiences we decided enough was enough: if we could not do the job properly we wouldn’t do it at all.”
Instead the owners of a cruise liner Arkadia suggested he work with them. So in 1964 he formed Percy Thrower’s Floral Tours to take groups on garden cruises to Madeira [from£148 pp!] , the Canaries and South Africa [from £435 for 28 days]. This later led to work on the QE2 where he gave lectures on gardening.
He also became a consultant to Plant Protection, a subsidiary of ICI , then the leading company in garden-related pesticides and fertilizers. This did not involve advertising their products directly. He would, however, give talks sponsored by ICI where there were obvious displays of their products, although somehow always managed to avoid referring to them directly. Since he was, at the same time, the gardening expert for the Radio Times ICI cheekily also used to advertise their products next to his columns in the magazine every week. “Percy was gold to advertisers.” [BBC2]
In 1967 he was asked by ICI to go to Syon to meet the Duke of Northumberland. This was not a social call but to give advice on the possibility of turning a section of Syon Park into a “a national garden centre” which would be backed by ICI in partnership with the Duke. The aim was to produce a place “where all that was best in British gardening could be put on show.” Percy ended up being appointed to the board and later welcomed the Queen Mother when she officially opened the garden centre in 1968.
In 1970 he heard that a local nursery, Murrells of Shrewsbury, was for sale, and he immediately bought it in partnership with an old acquaintance. The 40 acre site was on the Shrewsbury by-pass, and already had a well-established catalogue and clientele. This became Percy Thrower’s Gardening Centre.
Unlike most of today’s gardening emporia the former Murrells remained a proper nursery, propagating huge quantities of their own plants, including many container grown deliberately for the mail-order market.
In 1977, the year Thrower published his autobiography, the nursery grew 150,000 roses, using a Dutch expert to do budding grafts at the rate of 4,000 a day! He estimated that they also raised 100,000 shrubs from cuttings only buying in a few species such as azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias.
So Percy was not just a National Treasure he was also an astute businessman. All of these commercial involvements were just about acceptable to the BBC, but, at the time, they had a very strict policy about any of their presenters being directly involved anything which they saw as compromising the independence of their programmes.
In 1976 he signed a contract to appear in adverts for ICI which were to be broadcast on ITV. The upshot was drastic but, given the BBC rules at the time, probably not unexpected. Percy was dropped with immediate effect…or as both sides put it “his contract was not renewed.”
Peter Seabrook recalls after getting a phone call from Barry Edgar in Birmingham asking if he would take over Gardeners World at just a few days notice. “Percy had overstepped the mark. Yes, his face was alongside ICI garden products in all the shops and the ads and everything” but then “he recorded a couple of ads in his garden showing him applying Rose Plus … it was I’m afraid a step too far and so he was axed.”
The Times Diarist interviewed Seabrook a few days later and was not impressed with his response.
Other headlines proclaimed more loudly: “Percy gets the big welly boot”…”Thrower thrown out”…or “Percy finds himself in the fertilizer”.
Perhaps in a way the split with the BBC came at the right time – the height of his fame. Percy had known the drudgery of hard physical labour during his early years in the garden, and had become a fervent advocate of chemical solutions to everything and all labour-saving machines and gadgets. Such unrestrained enthusiasm was beginning to isolate him from the new generation of gardeners who rose to prominence as his own career drew to a close, although he never lost their respect and admiration.
Peter Seabrook said “Percy was God as far as we were concerned,” whilst Alan Titchmarsh used the same analogy saying he was “a gardening god” and “supreme on television.” However he went onto say “It’s not that Percy was a stick-in-the-mud… But somehow, if he were alive today, I’m not sure that he would find it easy to embrace organic gardening, having grown up in a world where chemicals seemed to provide all the answers in the short term at least.” [Alan Titchmarsh, Trowel and Error]
Nevertheless it was Percy who had the last laugh. Although he regretted losing his contract with the BBC he always maintained that the contract with ICI was the best he ever signed. It must certainly have made him rich.
In 1974 he was give an entry in Who’s Who and two years later, whilst doing a celebrity appearance at the Ideal Home Exhibition, he was waylaid by Eamon Andrews: “You’ve planted a few surprises in your life Percy, now here’s one for you’ and found himself on This is Your Life which he described as one of the most moving experiences of his life.
He was awarded the RHS ‘s Victoria medal of honour in 1974, and given the MBE in 1984.
Percy remained active and in great demand until the mid-1980s when he began to suffer heart problems. He slowed down considerably although continued to record programmes from “The Magnolias, until March 1988 when he went into hospital and announced his retirement. One last recording for Blue Peter was made from his hospital bed before he died…or rather, as the vicar said at his funeral, he “was taken to be replanted in the hereafter.”
His daughters sold the garden centre in 2000 to what is now the Wyevale chain saying: “It has gone past its sell-by date, the floors are on different levels, the roof leaks and it can be a difficult place to shop in.” They were then sacked by the new owners in 2007. Margaret Thrower said:”It’s terrible to be made redundant – but it’s even worse when your father’s name is above the door….The point of selling the garden centre was to get the necessary investment to update it and make it as it should be. Instead of that, the buildings look tired and the place is in decay. I’m so disappointed. My father helped to transform gardening into what it is today. It is such a shame that the industry should treat his memory like this.” [Daily Express 24th August 2007]
In 2012 plans were put forward for its demolition and redevelopment and work is due to start on the new 60,000 sq ft centre alongside a Waitrose superstore this year, 2015.[Shropshire Star, 19th Jan 2012 and 23rd Jan 2014]
So what is Percy’s legacy? Gay Search, one of his successors on Gardeners’ Word summed up his enormous influence. Even today “he is to gardening what Stirling Moss is to motor-racing – almost a generic term”
Thrower helped gardening back to its place as Britain’s favourite leisure activity. After years of wartime and austerity he encouraged people to “discover the genius of a site, however small, by observation and experiment; how to create a microclimate by the judicious planting of trees and shrubs; how to reconcile the desire for immediate effect with long-term aims.” [Dictionary of National Biography] But he didn’t do it by preaching, but by example.
Let’s leave the last word to his protégé, Alan Titchmarsh: “He was a true pro; a pleasure to watch. Courtly and gracious, a giant amongst gardeners.”