We’re all used to seeing gardening programmes on the TV these days, hosted by an array of “celebrity” TV gardeners but I bet most of us won’t know who the first TV gardener was. And even when I tell you, you probably won’t know much about him even if you have heard his name….. and no it’s not Percy Thrower which is what people seem to think but a man named Cecil Middleton, usually referred to as just “Mr Middleton”.
Cecil Henry Middleton was born in 1886 on the Weston Hall estate in Northamptonshire where his father was gardener to Sir George Sitwell, father of Osbert, Edith and Sachaverell.
According to the publishers blurb in his “Outlines of a Small Garden” published originally in 1934, he “spent his boyhood in greenhouses and potting sheds” until he was 17 when he enrolled as a student at Kew.
[Incidentally if anyone knows anything about the gardens of Weston Hall then do get in touch as we don’t have an entry for it in our database.]
By 1914 when war broke out he was a horticultural instructor for Surrey County Council and “his expert knowledge was in demand” so he joined the Board of Agriculture as an advisor.
The BBC started gardening talks as early as 1922. A few of these were written by famous gardeners like Vita Sackville-West but mostly they were just a list of practical tips compiled by the Royal Hostriultural Society and read out by the announcer. As broadcasting grew more sophisticated the BBC asked the RHS for more contributors and C.H. Middleton was one of their suggestions, and he was eventually chosen as the presenter from a field that also included Sackville-West.
Middleton was a born broadcaster with a very conversational style, far removed from the normal rather stilted BBC presenter of the time, and began his first talk on 9 May 1931 with the words that soon became one of his catchphrases: ‘Good afternoon. Well, it’s not much of a day for gardening, is it?’
Three years later in 1934 he began his weekly Sunday afternoon talks called “In Your Garden”. These became immensely popular because “there was nothing brainy about them”and became a regular event over the next ten years. It was probably their success that established the BBC, rather than any newspaper or author, as the leading source of gardening information for the public. By 1938 he was able to resign his post as a horticultural instructor and concentrate on his new career as a broadcaster and writer.
Mr Middleton’s success on radio put him a good position when television broadcasting began and on 21 November 1936 he presented in the first gardening program. Sadly there are no surviving recordings since the recording tape was expensive and so continually reused.I was also surprised to learn that he was the designer of the first demonstration garden laid out in the grounds of Alexandra Palace and which he used during his broadcasts.
Not only that but in 1938 he also pioneered televised visits to the Chelsea Flower Show – so eat your heart out Mr Titchmarsh!
By this point his understated image and voice were instantly recognisable. Comic actor, Nelson Keys, was able to gently mimic and impersonate him on a variety show. Sadly there only a few seconds of this survive but you can still see how accurate it probably was.
and his advice was turned into a cabaret song …..
Unfortunately his TV career did not last long because televised broadcasting stopped with the onset of war in 1939 and Middleton died before it was resumed in 1946. However his radio broadcasts went from strength to strength, and by 1940, about 3.5 million people were listening to “In Your Garden”, which was, because of the dispersal of the BBC during the war, broadcast from a studio at Evesham. By 1942 that number had risen to about 70% of those households with radio sets. In other words most of the country tuned in to listen to Middleton.
He spoke knowledgeably yet straightforwardly, appealing to both those who were experienced and the many novices pushed into productive gardening by wartime necessity, and who perhaps until then had “only dreamed of gardening”.
He was a key figure too in the Dig for Victory Campaign: “There is no more peaceful spot on earth than an English garden, and for some years you and I have been building up our little flower gardens, making them more beautiful, more intimate and more than ever an essential part of our homes. But grim times are with us, and under the stress of circumstances we are now called onto reorganise those gardens and turn them into munitions factories…the gardeners of England can do much to help the nation in its hour of need.” [Preface to Your Garden in War-Time, 1941]
In one Ministry of Information campaign Mr Middleton was also seen as a cartoon character leaning on gate telling how the public how to go about making a compost heap or ‘plant canteen’. The short film was designed to promote the joys and benefits of compost making and urging people not to waste anything that could be recycled.
Middleton compiled many of his talks into a series of books. These were issued unillustrated and as cheaply as possibly during the war to promote vegetable growing, although he actually preferred growing flowers. He ended the preface of his most famous collection Your Garden in War Time in June 1941 saying “we must look forward to the time when tis nightmare will end – as end it must – and the morning will break with all our favourite flowers to greet us once more, and who nows, perhaps my next volume of talks will be of roses, mignonette, daffodils and lilies.”
He became a celebrity by default. He broadcast on Children’s Hour, and worked for children’s charities; gave speeches and opened flower shows, wrote a regular column for the Daily Express, and even gave celebrity endorsement to gardening products.
Then in September 1945, just as the war ended, Mr Midleton died suddenly outside his home in Surbiton. Pathe News recorded part of his funeral cortege and included the only known piece of film footage of him giving gardening advice.
Ten years later there was a memorial appeal, and the BBC installed new gates in his honour on a garden behind the Langham Hotel in Cavendish Place.
One of the oldest gardens in the West End the Middleton Garden, as it has been known since 1961, has recently been revamped recently by the Langham group as “a rose garden” available for hire as a wedding venue. Sadly there aren’t many roses on show and Mr Middleton probably wouldn’t recognise the site of his former allotment!
His legacy was a strong base of practical gardening advice delivered in an unassuming and unpatronising way. And 50 years after the first broadcast this was still being celebrated by the BBC.
Even in 2000, 55 years after his death, Mr Middleton was ranked 9th (immediately below Gertrude Jekyll and Prince Charles, although a long way behind Geoff Hamilton who had recently died) in a poll of readers of Amateur Gardening Magazine who voted for their “Gardener of the Millennium”: [[Vicky Bamforth, The Gardener’s Companion 2004]. Given that most of those voting would neither have seen or heard him broadcasting that seems a pretty good indication of his importance as a moving force in modern gardening and horticulture…and a good reason for celebrating his life.