We have television gardener Joe Swift appearing at Camberley Theatre on March 23rd.
Tickets available here: http://www.camberleytheatre.biz/events/joe-swift-man-about-garden
Brian Donaldson caught up with Joe to ask him a few questions.
Gardening has long been a mainstay on British television, and Joe Swift is currently one of the genre’s most popular small screen presenters. He’s fronted the likes of Gardeners’ World, Garden Invaders and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show while he’s also written books such as The Plant Room and Joe’s Urban Garden Handbook. Away from the cameras and covers, he gets involved in community and school gardens, and is an ambassador for the National Gardens Scheme and patron of the Horniman Museum .
And now he’s taking his expertise and personality on tour for A Man About The Garden, with live shows which will feature his memories of starting off in landscape gardening in the mid-80s, his rise to become an acclaimed garden designer, and the eventual move into TV. But above all, what will come across is his unconditional love of gardens, whether big or small, commercial or private, contemporary or classic.
“It’s been something that’s kept me going and I really love it,” Joe tells me. “I like the people in the industry, I like the fact that you’re always learning, and I love that it’s very creative. And now I write about it, have ended up on TV, and do live tours; I find that they all feed off of each other and improve my garden design. Over the years a lot of funny stories have come up. For the show, I’ll have a lot of slides and visuals, but it’s not an evening lecture about gardening, it’s much more light entertainment. There will be a 10-15 minute Q&A but I will not be talking about dead plants.”
So if your perennial has recently passed away into herbaceous heaven and you feel the need to share with someone about your grief, best not make that person Joe Swift. “I think, ‘just dig it up and put something else in and take responsibility: you killed it!’ I want to think more positively and creatively rather than just about keeping a dying plant alive. A lot of these evenings with gardeners tend to be a little like Question Time, and I like to think that my events will still be informative but hopefully just a bit more fun. I think the audience will soon realise that we’re not here to talk about the pH of their soil.”
His convoluted route into the gardening world will be familiar to many in his audience no matter their own chosen profession. “I’m the classic art school drop-out. I felt a little bit in the lurch so did some travelling and went to spend time on a kibbutz. Friends of mine had been there and hardly spent any money, yet came back looking healthy and tanned; all you had to do was get yourself there.”
So, Joe spent six months in Israel, working in the fish ponds, quickly becoming hooked on life in the fresh air. “I just loved working outdoors so when I came back to London with one art A-level to my name, I started working for this landscape gardening company. It was for this guy who was half-actor half-gardener, and I worked beside this hippy gardener called Antonia who was amazing and taught me so much. I started at the bottom, mixing up cement for the landscaping guys and later I went to Australia to landscape in Melbourne and Sydney. I had experience behind me so when I came back to the UK I studied garden design properly.”
In some way, Joe Swift’s journey to expressing that deep passion and genuine love for his job on a stage could perhaps be seen as inevitable. After all, he has actors and writers in his family: his dad is Clive Swift who most famously played the brow-beaten husband in BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances while his mother is acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble. And his late uncle, David Swift, was best known as the badly-behaved news anchor Henry Davenport in Channel 4’s classic 90s satire, Drop The Dead Donkey.
So, was a life of writing and performing almost inevitable? “People say that it’s in the blood but I’m not so sure,” reckons Joe. “The funny thing is that I forgot my lines at my primary school’s nativity play. Both my parents went to Cambridge and my brother and sister went to Oxford yet I was an art school drop-out. But yes, I did end up writing and performing; it’s just that I’m so passionate about gardens and gardening that I’ve really just found my thing.”
Looking back on his career to date, Joe pinpoints the moment he considers his proudest achievement. “In 2012 I won a gold medal at The Chelsea Flower Show which is the pinnacle of garden design. I’ve been presenting The Chelsea Flower Show since about 2001 so a lot of people associate me with that. I’ll be talking about what it takes to get a gold medal. It’s quite phenomenal really; there’s an incredible amount to be done because your garden has to go up in three weeks, stay up for a week and then back down again in a few days; you have a quarter of a million pound budget and away you go. There’s no room for error and it’s on such a global stage. If you’ve made a crap garden or if you’re in any way embarrassed about it, you’ve nowhere to hide.”
While garden design, TV and Joe Swift eventually all found each other, he could well have been performing for a living on a very different kind of stage: the rock ’n’ roll one. “We started off as a teenage band and then kept going after we left school, gigging around a lot of clubs and pubs around north London. We were all convinced, in our own minds at least, that we would be rock stars. It was an early 80s, post-punk thing: we thought we were The Clash. We called ourselves Tumbling Dice after a Rolling Stones song because the Stones were named after a Muddy Waters song. We thought, ‘well that worked for them, so it’s bound to happen for us’. It didn’t.”
While Joe will still have the odd tinkle on his bass and go for a jam with mates (he has the odd session with The Pogues drummer who lives on his road), it’s clear that rock ‘n’ roll’s loss has become garden design’s gain.