Is there anything more beautiful than a garden? From a wildflower filled hillside dripping with color to a formal lawn adorned with a rainbow of pastel patchwork, nature never looks more stunning than when she opens her inherent glory to the eye of man, when she pries open her paint box of multi-hued horticulture and creates masterworks. But sometimes the old gal needs a little glad-handing from man. Unbound and without borders, botany can occasionally turn traitor and make even the most pristine plot appear unkempt and unruly. That is why gardening is such a pleasurable repast. It allows us the opportunity to interact with the plant pallet in a way that makes the resulting art that much more hand crafted. But for many of us, the idea that our crab grass or weedy wastelands will ever look manageable, let alone magnificent is absurd. The suburban notion of lawn care and maintenance somehow translating into creative agricultural expression is just not part of our makeup. If it can't be mowed, fertilized or re-sodded, we sulk and chemically treat it. Not everyone believes in taking the shortest, simplest route to lawn and shrub wonder. The British have maintained a fine tradition of front and back yard splendor and their attention to detail is unbelievable. So it is also nothing new that, among the myriad of television shows about tilling and sewing, the English have produced the unqualified best (Paul James and his cute as a button Corgi be damned). Known as Ground Force, since 1997, this literally groundbreaking show proved that any plot of Earth could be magically transformed into something breathtaking. All it took was a little inspiration, a lot of hard work and people with a passion for nature itself.
The date is July 15, 2002. Alan Titchmarsh, famous broadcaster for the BBC who has long hosted the most popular horticultural program in the history of British television, Gardener's World, is about to film the final show in his most recent hit series, the equally accepted global phenomenon known as Ground Force. Over the course of 66 shows he has managed to transform the backyards and fulfill the dreams of hundreds of people, both everyday and famous. He has built rockeries and piers, pergolas and pathways. He's executed commemorative courtyards as tributes to the dead, playgrounds and parks for children everywhere and even agreed to makeover a few personal plots for foreign dignitaries. But now he is implementing his final design for a newlywed couple in the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. After traveling all over the planet, from a post-9/11 New York to the tropical splendor of Jamaica, as Far East as India and as close to home as his own hometown, he has been the heart, soul and center of this remarkable program. He is finally leaving the series he helped make into a sensation for "greener pastures" as they say. This special DVD highlight reel, entitled Ground Force: Garden Rescues will walk us through his final appearance, while showcasing the work of this magnificent man and his hard working team.
When Alan Titchmarsh was part of it, Ground Force was probably the best self-help fix it show ever created for any television. The premise was (and still is) simple: Titchmarsh and his crew, including hard landscaping (decking, paving) expert Tommy Walsh, Tommy's mortar-mixing assistant Will Shanahan and water feature (fountains, ponds) professional Charlotte "Charlie" Dimmock agree to make over a homeowner's garden while the person is away. They have two days to transform the usually appalling patches of earth into magnificent examples of nature tamed and accented. The always-stunned renovation 'victim' is never disappointed. Over the course of its run, the Ground Force team has transformed some very sad lawns and fetid flowerbeds into entities of unimaginable beauty. And they've never resorted to cheating or corner cutting. There is a pride and a passion for their work, and each other, that shows through amid each and every garden they convert.
Anyone who is a fan of the gloriously entertaining UK export as shown on digital cable network BBC America will instantly want to own a copy of this memorial DVD. It features Alan's last appearance on the show and a great deal of wonderful behind the scenes footage. There will be moments from familiar episodes that you will not remember (American commercial breaks require the program to be edited) and insights into the individual personalities here that will warm your soul. While it is not as all encompassing as one might want (why not simply start with a complete season set of Series 1?) it is still a resplendent reminder of how great the show was with Alan at the helm. The newer version, still called Ground Force is fine, but the remaining members of the team always felt like mates, not captains. And this is painfully obvious when they are left without their true leader. But for those unfamiliar with the show, this is not a disc that denies you its pure pleasures. The Ground Force team are perhaps that rarest of show business entities: a quartet of talent, both entertainment and professional that can instantly get you involved in an adventure or work project that you would never otherwise pay attention to. Sure, some can argue that John Thornicroft and the rest of the behind-the-scene staff make the show what it is from a purely technical television standpoint. But without the foursome at the forefront, Ground Force would be just like any other makeover show (unless we're discussing Trading Spaces, which is just a video version of Satan's pit stains).
Chemistry is the key to understanding the success of Ground Force. When putting together this team of tilling titans, care was given to provide the best faces forward for the home audience. Alan was already an established personality, having been the national gardening expert everyone in the UK turned to for their weekly dose of do it yourself. Little did the executives know that when Alan, Tommy and Charlie were put together (Will officially arrived later in series 2) their bond would become instantaneous and irrevocable and create a powerhouse trio that would successfully rule the airwaves for years (they were the #2 show in Britain behind long running soap Eastenders). These three people care a great deal about their business, but you can also see how much they learn from and rely on each other. Sometimes, the way they interact is far more fascinating than how many tons of topsoil they've had delivered or the extent to which the weed suppressing membrane actually works. All paving and petals aside, it is the personalities that turn Ground Force from a DIY demonstration into its own fascinating familial free for all. Bringing such divergent and yet similar ideologies together turns what should really simply be about building decks and lining ponds into an example of television at its most tantalizing.
Individually, each member of the Ground Force crew reminds you of someone you've known in your past, or a great character from culture or literature. Alan is the eccentric old Uncle, a man of all seasons happiest when he is working the soil. A walking encyclopedia of all things agricultural, he worries almost exclusively about one thing: whether the resulting garden he is creating will please the people he is making it for. He fidgets and whines. He orders and yells. But mostly he pitches in, right along side the rest of the crew and makes sure that things are done properly and precisely. With a wonderful, ebullient personality and a lilting voice that cracks at just the right time, Alan was and continues to be the soul of Ground Force. He personifies everything you expect the show to be about, from love of nature to friendship and honor with one's fellow man, with the added benefit of being a right regular chap. He's even somewhat of a famous author on top of it all. He writes fiction on the side and his books are very popular.
Tommy Walsh, on the other hand, is the free-spirited older brother type, the Cockney chippie (carpenter) with an impish grin and a vocabulary filled with rhyming slang. But his easygoing persona hides a perfectionist's bluster for making sure everything is done right and professionally the first time. He hates mistakes and pushes time limits to make sure his craftsmanship and reputation are pristine and unsullied. He is funny, forward, friendly and above all else, full of life. When his longtime workmate Will shows up, they become cocky co-conspirators, playing the pranksters right in front of the camera and using a 'builder us vs. a floral them' (Alan and Charlie) competition and camaraderie to elevate the personal interplay in the show. Almost always relegated to the background as his projects take up the most time, Tommy is still a formidable force in this ground crafting crew and his presence casts a spell over every garden they work on.
And then there is Charlotte, the sole female in this menagerie of men. Poor Ms. Dimmock. Saddled with a tomboy's nickname and a personal penchant for working braless, her strawberry blond locks and brazen wit hide a deeply feminine beauty of Rubenesque glamour and sex appeal. While most of the home audience is unsettlingly focused on her chest, many miss the pearl essence of her eyes and the warmth of her smile. The fact they she is also a tremendously hard worker and an exceptional 'Janet of all trades' in the garden (she is the only one who handled the chainsaw when the need be and no one messes with water features when Miss C is around) is icing on the overstuffed eye candy cake. It's interesting to note that Charlie got one of the first spin-offs from Ground Force, Charlie's Garden Army and is considered the ersatz host of the new Alan-less version of the show. She may not have his presenter skills, but she is still a rarity in television: a woman unto and wholly of her own design following her primary passion with vigor and wit.
Over the course of this DVD you will witness dozens of grateful homeowners fawning over their new gardens, the incredibly awful beginnings of the show (in which Alan sat in a tennis judge's chair directing families to...oh never mind) and various expletive filled outtakes (of course, this being Britain, the language is not quite so rough). You will see Charlie and Tommy's screen tests and some of how the show is filmed. But what pours off of this presentation like fragrance from a rose is how perfectly matched the talent and the premise were for this show and how it managed to transcend the format to become something else all together. For you see, Ground Force is not just a show about gardening, it's about the very foundation of nature...life itself. It doesn't center on odd interior design but spectacular exterior delights. It showcases how people all over the world, from the poor in India to the Western wealthy, all respond with wide eyed wonder and childish glee at the cycle of growth, from seed to plant and back again. It's moving in its meaning to those it has influenced and may even produce a tear or two in the tired eyed of the modern cynical audience member. You see, the beauty of a garden in not just in its look, but also in its creation and crafting. And Ground Force proves that special skill and expert training aside, when people come together in companionship and respect to make nature over into their own image, it's the reverse God principle in practice. Something miraculous does indeed happen.
This is an amazing looking DVD. Perhaps breathtaking would be a better word. Having watched this show throughout the course of its run on digital cable, this critic can safely say that Ground Force has NEVER EVER looked this good when broadcast. The colors literally jump off the screen and the images offered match the magical atmosphere invoked. Presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the clarity is stunning and the details delicious. Occasionally, when watching the show in reruns, one wonders what it would be like to actually walk around one of these horticultural masterworks. Ground Force: Garden Rescues is the closest thing you'll find visually - other than visiting the locations of some of the creations in person – to experience the crew's creative wonderment.
Once again, this is one fantastic DVD in the media department. This critic owns the Black Dyke Band CD that provides the soundtrack for the series and has always considered it a baroque sonic masterpiece. This digital versatile disc is just as superior. The dialogue and narration and clear and concise, the musical interludes exciting and energetic and the ambiance of working outdoors in all types of climes is captured spectacularly. The Dolby Digital Stereo doesn't give the channels that much of a challenge, but when it reproduces the rousing brass band score, the elegant old English mood is exquisitely captured.
To add majesty to magnificence, this Ground Force DVD provides three Best-Of Lists, one from each of the main cast members. Divided into near 10 minute plus featurettes, these individualized looks at Alan, Tommy and Charlie's favorite garden makeovers are fascinating (especially when several they pick wouldn't make your own personal top 20). Each presenter has also chosen the 10 best transformations and each list is illustrated through a showcase of short segments, about 15 seconds in length, highlighting the before and after conversions. Finally, there is a 9 minute look at the making of the music behind Ground Force, and any fan of the Black Dyke Band, Jim Parker and the gorgeous brass accompaniment to the show will treasure this added treat. Just to see Parker explain his style and to witness Alan lead the BDB live is excellent. While it would have been nice to have a commentary or outside the show format set of interviews, one can't argue when the bonuses provide more amazing Ground Force footage.
As if you haven't guessed it by now, I am an obsessive Ground Force fan. I never missed the show when Alan was on and have been known to sit perfectly still for hours on end during frequent marathons on BBC America. Funny thing is, I have no desire to garden. None whatsoever. To me, the notion of busting my hump in the pursuit of a properly trimmed hedge or wealth of daisy blossoms seems foolish, if not downright aggravating. I could care less if the pea shingle is properly compressed or if the red brick trim around the flowerbeds is level. The reason I love the show is not for the makeovers so much as for the team members. The reason that Ground Force works so well for me is that it is the rare instance where the chemistry between the cast far outshines the still spectacular transformations they create in people's gardens. Once Alan left, the old spark was substantially dimmer. The series continued on without Mr. T and it is good, but not glorious. Alan Titchmarsh was and will always be Ground Force. He is the lynchpin by which the success of the entire enterprise was and is still based. Gone but not forgotten, he takes with him this critic's memories of watching his first ever episode. An Irish builder wanted to surprise his best friend with a football (read: soccer) themed garden. After two days of difficult work, the team completed the plan and the reveal was made. It was spectacular. Two hardened blokes; men who work hard for a living were moved to tears when Ground Force unveiled their interpretation of this dream. There was another glint in an eye as well, a foolish funny feeling of happiness. I had found something magical about being in the garden. I had found something special on television. I finally understood the power of nature. And that is really the lasting legacy of Ground Force.
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