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For Square Meal’s latest celebrity interview, Brian Viner entertains Gardener’s World presenter Monty Don to lunch at feted Italian restaurant Locanda Locatelli
It would be easier to find an orchid on a slagheap than a slot in Monty Don’s diary for lunch. The presenter of Gardener’s World is in the process of filming a new 10-part series for the BBC called Around The World in Eighty Gardens, for which he has been briefed to get under the skin of a country’s culture through its gardens.
Accordingly, he has spent much of the past year overseas, in even more exotic locations than Locanda Locatelli, where, finally, I have managed to pin him down to enjoy three splendid courses and a good natter.
As it happens, we are neighbours in rural Herefordshire and the last lunch I had with Don was in my kitchen. But nothing appeals to two country boys like a slap-up meal in the city, and Don has heard from his wife, Sarah, that Locatelli’s is well worth a visit.
‘She said the staple dishes you might normally avoid on an Italian menu are done exquisitely here, and there’s nothing remotely boring about choosing them,’ he says. With this in mind, he opts for a mozzarella starter, pan-fried calf’s liver as a main course and zabaglione for pudding.
But however good the Italian food, we mustn’t forget we’re in England, so I ask him whether on his recent travels he has found anywhere to match the classic English idyll of neat front gardens enclosed by privet hedges.
‘New Zealand’s a little bit like that,’ he says. ‘New Zealand is rather like taking a driving tour in a Morris Minor in the Scottish borders in 1958, which is why I could never get Sarah to go in a million years. And yet it’s rather wonderful. It’s very hard not to have a very nice time in New Zealand. It’s an uncorrupted place. I lost my notebook there, containing all my notes on Australia, but someone picked it up on the street, took it to the police station, and it was sent to me in Herefordshire.’
Don’s home and garden in Herefordshire have been labours of love, and he has written with great candour about the journey that led him and Sarah there: how in the 1980s their London-based jewellery business went bankrupt; how he suffered depression afterwards; and how even now he is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Surely spending most of the winter in Australasia and South America has helped him get the better of SAD, I venture. But for Don it has also had its downsides: the BBC project has meant long separation from Sarah, their three children, and his new labour of love, a hill farm in mid-Wales, where he intends to breed cattle.
‘Cattle interest me,’ he says. ‘Not sheep. I don’t like sheep. They are stupid and they have foul backsides. But I know cattle, and I am attracted, albeit in a rich-man’s-hobby sort of way, by the idea of breeding them. I genuinely like the idea of showing my cattle at the Royal Welsh Show.’
Asked whether winning a best-in-show award would be better than a Bafta for his television work, he says: ‘Yes, it would satisfy every cell in my body. I feel terribly ambivalent about television. There is not a day in my working life when I don’t wonder what the hell I’m doing, and I’m often reminded that I’m a writer. I’m happiest in my room, on my own writing. I’ve applied myself to television and tried to get good at it, but in the end you know the camera either loves you or it doesn’t.’
He concedes that he is one of those the camera loves, and also reluctantly admits to admiring it back, if only for its power to communicate. ‘On a very bad day on Gardener’s World, we might reach two million people, whereas I’ll be delighted if I sell two million books in my entire life.’
Around The World In Eighty Gardens will be both a TV series and a book. It promises treats such as an audience with Rupert Murdoch’s nonagenarian mother, Lady Elisabeth, who opens her Melbourne garden to the public seven days a year.
‘She is one of the brightest, most impressive women I’ve ever met in my life,’ enthuses Don. ‘She’s charming to the point of making me weak-kneed, bowled-over, infatuated within five minutes. And this predator of the western world, Rupert Murdoch, is just her son. It was like The Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy!”.’
This is typical of Don’s straight-talking manner. Moving on to politics, he gives a damning assessment of Tony Blair. ‘He has been guilty of the terrible crime of moral vanity, doing things for his own self-worth. And when that involves sending British and other troops to their deaths, that’s genuinely unforgivable.’
He has his own reasons to condemn the government too: its lack of support for his charity, The Monty Project, which sprang from his Growing Out Of Trouble series and sets young offenders to work on the land.
Don argues: ‘It costs us just £15,000 a year for us to have someone five days a week learning a new skill, and £47,000 a year to keep that same person in prison, yet the government is remarkably reluctant to help us.’
He is raising funds to establish a permanent site in Herefordshire, where youngsters with troubled backgrounds can gradually be encouraged to feel useful to society.
‘In the immediate future, I will need £1.5m,’ he explains. ‘Yet it is only realistic for me personally – with my talks about gardening and so on – to raise about £10,000 a year. And we need so much more.’
On that plaintive note, Don drains the last of his Barolo, shakes my hand and promises to do his best to find me another orchid on a slagheap sometime – in other words, another date for lunch.
For further information on Monty Don’s charity, contact [email protected]
8 Seymour Street, W1, tel: 020 7935 9088
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007