Big Allotment Challenge: does a perfect radish make perfect TV?

New BBC2 show makes Great British Bake-Off seem dangerously subversive by comparison

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:18 ON Wed 16 Apr 2014

WITH The Great British Bake-Off on its way to BBC1 later this year, BBC2 has been casting around for the next hardy perennial. The Big Allotment Challenge, which arrived last night, seeks to fill the gap in its schedule with the minimum of fuss.

Inattentive viewers would barely have noticed the difference. The action, such as it is, revolves around three challenges set in the grounds of an English country house and interspersed with swooping shots of lawns, wildflowers and walled gardens. As if to prove its lineage, one of last night’s challenges involved making jam.

All that’s missing is Mel and Sue, and the welcome sheen of irony they bring to the Bake-Off tent. Fern Britton (“lovely Fern”, as she was known in W1A), plays it utterly straight. Still, the allotment proves equally amenable to innuendo. “Good erect stems,” says one of the judges, eyeing a row of sweet peas with steely approval. But the next candidates fail to meet with his approval: “They’re a bit short, lads,” he says, more in sorrow than in anger.

Despite the cynicism of the format, on screen The Big Allotment Challenge is utterly serene. Clouds scud, Fern clucks and nature takes its course. It makes the Bake-Off seems dangerously subversive by comparison.

All three judges knows that one of them ought to be the nasty one, but for most of the show none has the nerve to follow through. “It doesn’t really work for me” is about as acerbic as it gets. Then they all go into overdrive, describing one candidate’s prize bouquet as frightening and another’s jam as horrific, but it’s hard to take too seriously.

In fact, there’s a complete absence of jeopardy. Whereas cakes can be knocked together in a few hours, a sweet pea grows at its own sweet pace – and that means the gardening is over by the time the challenges are set. The contestants have been told what to plant and given several months to grow it before regrouping for the competition.

Apart from making jam and assembling a bouquet of sweet peas, they are asked to present three perfect radishes which, for reasons that are never made clear, must be absolutely uniform in shape and size. “Radishes are easy to grow,” Jim says, “but difficult to perfect.” And, one might add, not really worth the effort.

Nevertheless, the gardeners sort through the scores of radishes they’ve grown, looking for three that meet the arbitrary aesthetic standard. It all seems at odds with the spirit of the programme, whose value, if it has any at all, lies in celebrating the glorious irregularity of the human species.

For while the set-up may be cosy, predictable and derivative, the contestants are a likeable lot – a little eccentric, but in an understated, non-attention-seeking kind of way. “You have to sing to them as you feed them,” says one of them, striking up a low chant as her husband waters the plants. “No I don’t,” he says, probably not for the first time. “Singing is your department.”

Norwegian TV once had a surprise success by broadcasting nothing but a crackling log fire for 12 hours. The Big Allotment Challenge is a less imaginative format, but it may prove to be equally comforting.

The Big Allotment Challenge continues on BBC2, Tuesdays at 8pm.

Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith  ·