The Autistic Gardener Review – Is Autism The New Baking?
“I am a gardener. I literally am: A Gardner, it’s my name,” says Alan Gardner, possibly not for the first time. He’s also The Autistic Gardener, a new show on Channel 4. I wonder if they thought of calling it The Auticulturist, and then decided against it, probably wisely. Alan’s doing a makeover, on a disaster of a garden in Derbyshire, with the help of Charles, Thomas, Philip, Victoria, James and Victoria, all of whom are also on the spectrum.
Autism, it’s the new baking, have you noticed? Very fashionable right now, on the TV. Which can and will be seen as both good and bad news. The booers will say that this is autism as entertainment. Which I don’t buy, not here anyway. It’s about challenging perceptions, detaching stigma, showing what people can do. It’s positive, without being either patronising or too worthy and boring. To be honest, the more of it there is out there the better.
Another possible criticism is that you only get a certain sort of mental condition on TV. With autism, this usually equates to high-functioning autism and Asperger’s – the more televisual parts of the spectrum, you might say. And you can see people sitting at home thinking: this is not my experience with my son/daughter/brother/sister/self – they’re/I’m not good at mathematics or don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, or anything. It’s a more valid criticism, but then you can see why it happens; seeing people who can do stuff probably makes better television than people who can’t. Not that this show pretends it’s all a breeze either. We hear about and see Thomas’s problems with communications, Victoria’s failure to be taken seriously, all of their struggles in social situations. It’s about the pluses and the minuses.
Alan, who sees numbers and sequences in things, is very good at opening up his and the others’ worlds to a wider world, as well as getting the others into action. In fact, you might easily not know he wasn’t “neurotypical”. Yeah, you’re just pretending aren’t you, Alan, you dyed your hair, and painted your nails (how does that work, with the gardening, by the way?) just to get on TV, didn’t you? But then there are a few clues, such as when Ben the client clearly has some major concerns about the idea of two-metre vertical railway sleepers marching down his garden like pylons across the countryside. “For me, it’s trying to understand the purpose of it,” he says.
Alan isn’t reading any of his worries, though. “The client is very happy and everything just happens to the point and it is perfect,” he says cheerfully. And happily, he turns out to be right to ignore/not to see Ben’s concerns. They put up the posts, Victoria paints them lilac and drapes them in camouflage netting; Ben and his partner Rebecca love them. They love Victoria’s five-storey insect hotel, and Thomas and Phillip’s layouts and planting, and James’s amazing reclining turf giant, and Charles’s Jurassic root stumpery. Between them, they’ve turned an unloved patch of couch grass into a bit of magic. It’s a brilliant achievement, and a brilliant garden.Photograph: Todd Anthony
Rich Russians have also recently become a popular subject for TV. Usually, it’s as a source of wonder, jealousy and comedy – the cars, the champagne, the caviar, the Chelsea mansions, the Chelsea football clubs. But this one – From Russia With Cash (Channel 4) – is a little bit more serious. A couple of undercover reporters pose as a (comedy) corrupt Russian government minister called Boris and his much younger, much blonder, much more beautiful girlfriend Nastya (Nastier?) in order to see if they can buy expensive London property with clearly dodgy money, anonymously, no questions asked. And guess what: they can, no problemski, every time.
The issue at the heart of the show – that corruption and money laundering are behind London’s property boom, and the reason no honest native can afford to buy property anywhere near their own capital – is a very serious one. But the show doesn’t go after the big guys, the real Borises and Nastyas; they’re not so easy to catch, and they probably have heavies with polonium-210 in the tips of the brollies. Instead it goes after the people who make it, and allow it, to happen, ie estate agents. So what we’re finding out is that they – estate agents – are odious, money-grabbing, amoral leeches on society. And/or very, very stupid. And I think we kind of suspected that already, didn’t we?
• This article was amended on 9 July 2015. An earlier version included a reference to “mental illness as entertainment”; autism is a condition, not an illness.