When I first heard that someone was going to make a new Australian TV show about gardening, I was amazed. Then excited. Then cynicism started to creep in. Would it be another quickie makeover show? A dumbed-down ‘reality’ show filled with manufactured drama? Then I heard Michael McCoy was the presenter and I breathed a great sigh of relief because I knew he wouldn’t have anything to do with either of those.
I’ve seen previews of the first two episodes of Dream Gardens. You’ll get to see the first 27 minute episode on ABC TV at 8pm next Thursday, 9 February 2017. And I recommend that you watch it, because it’s pretty good, it’s a new show about gardens (a rarity on Australian TV) and because it’s about garden design and construction rather than gardening.
Following how garden makers create their ‘dream gardens’ (and, in this show, that means garden designers working with their home owner clients) is a show premise filled with huge challenges.
First, unlike say Grand Designs, when the newly finished building looks at its pristine best (and from there it’s all downhill of course), gardens rarely look like anything much when they’re first built and planted. The built elements totally dominate the plants until they’ve had a few years to grow. How do you show a ‘da DA!’ TV reveal that doesn’t look ridiculous?
Secondly, I wondered who would be the ‘star’ of each segment – the designers or their clients? Or the presenter? The best gardens inevitably come from a strong and trusting partnership between the designer and client but too many ‘reality’ shows seem to end up being more about the presenter, building up the drama.
Thirdly I wondered whether the ABC could make a garden show that was significantly different to Gardening Australia. Could they be edgy? Deal with controversy or conflict?
So does Dream Gardens succeed on all counts? Here is my analysis…
1. Show structure
Like Grand Designs, we see what garden there is (or isn’t) before anything starts and then revisit it over the next 6-8 months as construction progresses, leading up to the reveal at the end. During this time we see various problems solved by designers and contractors, innovative construction techniques and design ideas, as well as the continued involvement of the home owner, as the dramas and delights unfold.
In each episode there’s also a small segment with another designer who has made a garden that has similarities to that week’s garden, such as on a steeply sloping block or a large productive garden. I’m really pleased that we get to see even more of Australia’s garden design talent on show.
And the show has a good balance between time with the home owners, the garden designer, Michael’s questions and then his voice-over segments.
Dream Gardens is very much about the trust that a home owner must have in the expertise and ability of a garden designer and, to a certain extent, also the contractor/builder. This reveals itself in a subtle way throughout but I’d like it more forthrightly discussed. While all garden designers are obviously not of the calibre of those we see on Dream Gardens, when people without innate design skills choose not to use a garden designer, especially for a difficult site, the awful results are everywhere. Not many people take on designing a house themselves but they will feel totally competent to design the landscape around it. A few are, but most are not.
2. Presenter Michael McCoy
First a disclaimer – Michael is a friend and that makes it very tricky to make criticisms. Fortunately I don’t have to as Michael is a natural in front of the camera, cheerful but not cheesy, and articulate and engaging. Why he hasn’t been on our TV screens in the past decade is a mystery. The only thing I found annoying was how he is able to wear a cream linen shirt walking about in dusty country and keep it clean and completely uncrumpled. Reality? I think not.
Michael’s offerings throughout the show fall into two categories. He interviews the garden owners about what they want – their ‘dream’ – and also the designers about how they plan to make that dream come true. This works very well although there was one occasion when I would have liked a bit more probing. In Episode 2 when we see the colossal garden disaster that needs to be fixed (and you absolutely have to watch that as it’s mind-blowing), we don’t really find out why that happened and who was responsible. I didn’t want names named, but I was frustrated at not knowing whether it was a classic case of a builder who knew nothing about gardens attempting to make one, or the home owners not understanding a landscape plan, or both. Fortunately, landscape designer Georgia Harper is called in for the rescue and the result is miraculous.
Michael often talks about design concepts during the show to the garden owners, such as “the space”, meaning the defined three-dimensional limits of any part of the garden, and how the design is creating the right sort of space, how it’s covering up faults and flaws, and also enhancing good points to make a dream garden that transforms a home and even lives. Although I did wonder a couple of times if the garden owners understood what he was talking about, I say a loud Halelujah! that, finally, this stuff is not being dumbed down on our screens into “isn’t this garden lovely“. Those likely to watch this show are, I’m sure, quite capable of learning this design talk and I loved hearing it.
3. Production style
This is the first time I’ve seen drone camera work used so extensively in a TV show. Michael had told me about it and I was a bit sceptical but it works brilliantly. The bird’s-eye views of the gardens both before and after make it so much easier for someone unfamiliar with reading garden plans to relate what’s on the ground to what’s in the designer’s head and we really do get to understand the “space”, on the ground plane and also in elevation.
And the animated graphics showing an elevation drawing of the design being superimposed on the actual site are incredible, showing where this design is heading over time, especially when we know we’re not going to see fully-grown plants by the end. So the garden’s big reveal at the end, even without its fully-grown plants, is still satisfying and well managed.
But…I was disappointed with a couple of things about the look and feel of this show. I’d hoped for something that felt completely different to that other ABC garden show offering, the long-running Gardening Australia. Does gardening always have to be presented so nicely and prettily, with gentle plinky-plonk music and close-ups of bees buzzing around flowers? I must be a hopeless unromantic but I find these shots boring and time-wasting. Come on, we’ve only got 27 minutes to explain this design and find out what happened so why are we looking at a flower gently waving in the breeze? What does that tell us about anything? It would be much more informative to see the pool tiling detail, or the step ratios, or how well those timber corners are mitred. And the show’s title animation also looks alarmingly like we’ve stumbled into a GA spin-off.
My other directorial gripe is the style of camera work I call ‘face-the-camera-and-walk-towards-me-talking-loudly-and-gesturing-meaningfully-as-you-do‘. I was hoping for something much more David Attenborough or Monty Don, with that quietly spoken, conspiratorial over-the-shoulder close-quarters style of delivery to the camera. As a viewer, it makes you feel like you’re in the story, following the presenter and experiencing everything with him. So much more engaging, and I know that Michael would do it brilliantly. Britain’s superb garden shows use this all the time but Australian shows stick resolutely to the ‘talk loudly at me’ rather than ‘speak softly with me’ presenter style. The ‘face the camera’ filming also means that the presenter’s face must be front lit with reflectors to get rid of the harsh daylight shadows. Michael’s a good-looking guy but this does look a little weird at times.
If those criticisms sound too negative, I must ‘fess up that I’ve allowed myself to have a rant about Australian gardening TV that I’ve been wanting to do for about 10 years. And that’s an unfair impression to give you of Dream Gardens, as it is a good show and well worth watching. I’d give the two episodes I saw a comfortable 4 stars out of 5.