BBC Gardeners’ Question Time

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Anne Swithenbank, Eric Robson, Pippa Greenwood and Chris Beardshaw, ‘Your Gardeners’ Question Time Panel’

Meet my new best friends! For those of you who are not familiar with it, this is a panel of experts from the iconic weekly BBC Radio 4 programme, Gardeners’ Question Time, which has been running continually since 1947. We were enormously proud that they came to Cheltenham on Monday 3 March to record an edition of the programme. This is the story of how it happened.

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It all started a year ago in March 2013 at a committee meeting of the Cheltenham Horticultural Society. As well as being Vice Chairman, I am also the Publicity Officer and I was throwing ideas around for events which would raise our profile and boost our membership. I had just listened to GQT from another part of the country hosted by a local gardening club and the penny dropped! I would offer to apply for us to host a recording in Cheltenham. Our committee is not exactly what you would call ‘adventurous’ or progressive so I new this would be met with some resistance. That is not a criticism, it is recognised by our current chairman and she is addressing it by recruiting people like me to take part. Brave move! Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am never there to make up the numbers and if I don’t think I can make a difference I won’t bother. Life is too short for banging your head against yet another brick wall. Anyway, I managed to get their approval to head up a small team to investigate what was involved and so I went to work. I spent the next couple of months steadily researching venues and establishing facts and figures to make a compelling case in the 16 page application form!020

On 2 August 2013, just as we had completed our work and were ready to submit our application the phone rang. It was a young lady called Hannah Crouch-Pereira from ‘Somethin’ Else’, the production company who makes GQT! Totally out of the blue. What a bizarre co-incidence I thought. She had got my name from the society’s website, phoned our secretary who gave her my number. She wanted to know if we would like to host a recording in Cheltenham! There I was, literally with the completed application form saved on the laptop ready to send with my begging email, and she was worried that she may have to persuade me! Apparently, many gardening clubs and societies turn it down! Hannah and I got on really well and the following day I sent her the application form which was now less of a sales pitch and more of an administration tool.

As part of the application process, you have to put forward three alternative but suitable venues for consideration. Fortunately for us, Cheltenham is blessed with many theatres, halls and conference venues and we quickly drew up a list of eight possibles. However, there was a big stumbling block. The maximum ticket price for the event laid down by the BBC rules at that time was just £2.50 which had to include refreshments! This meant paying the market rate for a good venue was going to be very difficult. Our first choice, the Pittville Pump Rooms which is a beautiful building and one of the original mineral spas from the mid 1850’s, was immediately ruled out. The catering was contracted to a Bristol company and there were no compromise deals available. Our second choice was the Bacon Theatre, part of the private Dean Close School and a very popular venue for plays, concerts and films. The manager was thrilled by the idea of the BBC coming and could not have been more helpful. Half price for the venue hire was negotiated and he would allow us to supply and serve our own refreshments with no cork-age or cover charges. 028

The BBC Sound Engineer visited our three choices, and also selected the Bacon Theatre using words like ‘ideal’ and ‘superb’ and ‘great choice’. We were on our way.

The usual audience for an edition of the programme is around 200 – 300 mainly due to the small venues they use like church and community halls. But here we were with a stonking 556 seat professional auditorium, stalls and circle, pitch perfect acoustics and free on-site parking for 350 cars. Now all we had to do was sell 550 tickets! We couldn’t ask the Bacon to sell them as there was no margin for any commission or credit card fees out of £2.50 a ticket price. I waited with baited breath for the BBC to call with the recording date so I could begin my ‘no cost’ marketing campaign. At the beginning of October, they finally confirmed the date of 3 March 2014 which we thought was just perfect. That gave us five months to sell the tickets and organise everything. 024

By spreading the word amongst our own 175 society members we sold over 200 tickets and by collaborating with other registered gardening clubs, horticultural societies and specialist groups in Gloucestershire, local branches of the Women’s Institute, Friends Groups, Cheltenham in Bloom and other interested parties we sold a further 250 tickets by Christmas. The remainder were kindly sold to the general public by our Vice President, Chris Evans, at his nursery in just three days with just a mention on our website! In January I contacted the BBC to tell them that all 550 tickets were sold and everything was organised. They were amazed! They phoned me back a week later after one of their planning meetings to ask if they could record two programmes instead of just one, something they do a handful of times a year if they have a big enough audience and enough questions to choose from. It would add an extra 45 minutes to the evening but the audience would get twice as much for their £2.50!030

The evening was meticulously planned and our team of 20 helpers worked their socks off welcoming people, taking their tickets, issuing them with drinks vouchers, rushing potential questions to Eric Robson and the Producer in the ‘green room’ , serving drinks, answering queries, dealing with the inevitable “I’ve forgotten my ticket” problems and ushering guests to their seats. Everything went off without a hitch. The theatre was full, Eric Robson was hilarious, the panel performed like it was their first time and filled the room with laughter. It was just perfect. Then, to everyone’s complete surprise, Chris Beardshaw interrupted normal proceedings to announce it was 20 years to the day that Eric Robson had been the Chairman and popped open the champagne on stage to tumultuous applause!

It had been 30 years since GQT last came to Cheltenham and it will probably not happen again in my lifetime so I was pleased to have ticked that box! The first programme was aired on Friday 14 March and the second programme will be aired on Friday 2 May at 3pm and repeated on Sunday 4 May at 2pm. I hope you can listen in and enjoy our big moment.

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