Highgrove: Alan Meets Prince Charles (BBC2, Thursday) brought us two men who are not quite national treasures, though who would certainly like to be. It’s interesting that ‘Alan’ apparently needs no surname, though ‘Charles’ requires the identifying title. But in spite of the implied matiness this was a deeply old-fashioned BBC royal slathering operation, in which no knee is unbent and no forelock goes untugged. Alan Titchmarsh could not get over how excited he was to be on his way to Highgrove and the prince’s garden: ‘its incomparable beauty and purity of purpose …by the best royal gardener in history,’ he breathed, even before he’d got there.
‘If you want to look into the heart of the future king of England, you need to look no further than into his own private garden …this is a garden of floral pageantry…a garden that satisfies all the senses…it seems to me that the whole ethos of this garden is that it is a garden that feeds the soul.’
It was like being hosed down with artificial cream. The garden did look lovely, and so it should, having 12 full-time gardeners, which I estimated means the prince has 298 times more help than we get from our bloke who comes in for three hours a fortnight. Admittedly, our garden is quite a bit smaller, and isn’t packed with busts of ‘his royal highness’, as everyone called him, or even busts of me. Nor has anyone written a suite to celebrate our garden in music, played by our personal harpist. One thing that they do appear to have in common is that they both need a great deal of manure shovelling over them. I got halfway through the show, and could take no more.
Time to look at Michael Wood’s Story of England (BBC4, Wednesday). I wanted to love this programme, and almost did. At least Wood (the presenter has to be in the title these days, since every show must be hosted by a celebrity, and they wouldn’t be a celebrity if their name wasn’t in the title) announced that for once this would be a programme not about our rulers but about the lives of ordinary people. So he has taken a largish Leicestershire village called Kibworth, wandered round the place in a Dr Who scarf, persuaded the inhabitants to dig up their back gardens, and is trying to tell the history of England through what they have found.
Sadly, what they have found isn’t that exciting, except to Wood himself, who seems to be in a state of continuous delight. A group of men walk round a field carrying white H-shaped instruments known as magnetometers, which detect evidence of things underground, but make it look as if they’re laying out a rugby pitch for elves. This survey reveals that there was once a Roman villa there, but there’s nothing of it left. Michael Wood can’t get over it. ‘It’s a whole new beginning — to the Story of Kibworth!’ he says.
Then the team takes DNA samples from the villagers, proving that some of them have Viking ancestry, or possibly nicked the pub’s cash register last week. And there are fragments of pottery. Lots of them. They had an impressive pottery expert, a bald chap with an earring, who looked as if he ought to have a rottweiler on a piece of string, but who could identify anything and any date, so he would hold up an acorn-sized lump of clay and tell you that it had been made in 780 AD. That was intriguing, though in the end they were just little bits of stuff. When you next take your children to the Museum of Kibworth, I fear they won’t detain you long.
The Special Relationship (BBC2, Saturday) was another programme that ought to have been more fascinating than it was. It told the story of Tony Blair’s friendship with Bill Clinton, played by Dennis Quaid in the manner of Bill Clinton doing a pretty good impression of Dennis Quaid. And Michael Sheen these days is closer to our image of Tony Blair than Tony Blair is.
There were several lines that had to be invented. Bill and Hillary are discussing Cherie, and he says, ‘You know, she’s from Liverpool, the Arkansas of England.’ In the past Spectator folk have had to do penance in Liverpool for writing anything disobliging about the place, and since I am typing these words in that city I’d better be careful. All I will say is that the remark seems to me unfair to Arkansas, which at least has plenty of hot weather, some wonderful scenery and delicious food, if you like barbecue pork, which I do.
But in the end, not a lot happened. Bill’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky emerged, and Hillary was peeved. Tony persuaded him to commit ground troops against Milosevic, which did the trick without troops actually having to be sent. Then Bill warned Tony against George W. Bush and his claque. We closed on Blair cosying up to Bush at a press conference, which, I suppose, was meant to show that he could cosy up to anyone. These reconstructions only really work if the writers have something to tell us that we didn’t already know.