Tension at Sissinghurst as Poirot meets River Cottage
As Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven modernise Vita Sackville West’s old pile, Antonia Quirke is more interested in their marriage
Am I going mad? Don't answer that. Merely clarify one thing. Is BBC4's new Sunday night show Sissinghurst a fly-on-the wall docu-series about the various ways in which the National Trust resists the pressure for Vita Sackville West's beloved Kentish castle and gardens to be hauled into River Cottage-ville with their own sustainable veg plot and sheep farm?
Or is it, in fact, a slyly vicious attempt on behalf of the castle's owner, the writer Adam Nicolson, to take revenge on his wife, the professional gardener and food expert Sarah Raven, for crimes committed previously in their marriage?
So far as I could tell, in the opening episode of the series, the seemingly mild and likeable Adam is seen doing innocent things like writing dreamily on his computer and wandering his estate. He looks like a nice man. He is famously a nice man. His laugh is high up and keen and his hair trembles like an entertaining squirrel that just died on his head. He wants things to go well at the new-look Sissinghurst and to only make changes everyone can live with.
Who orders someone to steam a posy of dead wild flowers back to life?
"I feel a real part of what's happening here!" he whoops when he gets the green light from the Trust to dig out some photos of how the park used to look when Vita had her own sheep, and he strolls back to his quarters along hedgerows, looking as happy as a person can be.
But then he is seen in his kitchen clutching cut flowers in a little mug, looking scared. He went out and they died! He'd been firmly told to steam them by his wife before doing anything else! "Her parting words were steam them," he says.
One is immediately puzzled. Are you trying to tell us something, Adam? You must know how odd this is sounding. I mean, what kind of person outside the Brothers Grimm leaves someone behind in a stone kitchen with strict orders not to emerge until the have steamed a posy of dead wild flowers back to life?
Then we meet Sarah. A substantial woman in a Withnail coat and red leather hobbit boots, she strides purposefully across a field she wants immediately turned over to the growing of rustic Italian vegetables for the Sissinghurst restaurant, which she is convinced serves too much protein.
My heart went out to Sarah - I'd like her if she weren’t so fucking awful
The restaurant is fantastically popular, full of grannies who have just dared to leave the house for the first time this spring and are diving into their plates of exploded sausages and imported racks of lamb swimming in Bisto. The food looks delicious. Everyone loves the food – everyone except Sarah, who wants to put little jugs of oil and vinegar out on the tables, like the Italians.
But we're not Italians, says the head chef, reasonably. People in Kent like to know where they are with their salad. "Then we must teach them!" mocks Sarah. Next the chef is seen swallowing hysterically in her company when he realises the honey in the store cupboard is Spanish, and not local.
Next Sarah is seen resolutely looking at her feet when Adam says he loves the general public. Next we see Sarah at a table assiduously at work underlining in coloured ink in a Liberty-expensive parchment notebook her ideas for improvements to the whole site ("A new chef? With Sarah to do the interviews." "Risotto." "A good shed.") My heart went out to her. I'd like her if she weren't so fucking awful.
But then nobody is coming out of the programme well - apart from Adam, who is, I am convinced, a Machiavelli on a mission to allow cameras into his home in order to expose Sarah as utterly excrutiating. A mission that actually had its origins - if I may extend my theory without sounding too much of a freak obsessed with the state of the Nicolson/Raven union, although I must confess I have been on to them for a while and the whole Sissinghurst thing only goes to show how consistent people can be – that had its origins in Nicolson's 2005 brilliant but bewildering book Seamanship.
This is a non-fiction account of how he sailed from Falmouth to the Faroes having a mid-life crisis in which he praised his beloved wife to the skies (the book is ostensibly a kind of poem to her) while simultaneously detailing how hard a time she had given him for going away and how frequently she let him know what a disappointment he had been to her and how he had let the children down too, but how wonderful and admirable and amazing she was and how bad she made him feel, how spineless, a person who would fall straight out of the car if it weren't for his seatbelt.
Oh Sarah without you I'm nothing, a git who would spend his money on Spanish honey and cigarettes. Oh Sarah, Sarah please let me crawl back and lie in your gutter, oh please let me make amends my darling Sarah why are you such a perfect wife, and bitch? I closed the book thinking Man, that marriage is tense.
And then on Saturday on Radio 4's Loose Ends Clive Anderson was interviewing Nicolson and mistakenly referred to Sarah as Simon (does Clive know something? He is a barrister.) Adam hit the roof, clearly scared out of his wits and what Sarah/Simon would have to say about such a slight. Not this broad again, I thought...
Et voila. The woman shall never plait garlic in this town again, and we're only on episode three. I should add that other characters in the series include a site manager who makes plate holders out of coat hangers and a mucho saphically-garmented Head Gardener called Alexis who murders magnolia trees without so much as a by your leave while wearing a Che Guevara beret - who cares if Vita liked the tree, what good was it doing just sitting there anyway?
The whole thing is intensely Poirot. Check it out and let me know what you think these people are on. (I could ask Jeremy Kyle, the psychologist, but what does he know? People do weird things. We don't know why. Test on Wednesday.)
PS Re: the girl who won University Challenge. She's not a student she is a 26-year-old teacher! Why don't they just let a Fellow from All Souls head up the team next time and be done with it? ·
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