Tag Archives: Directing

Beth Chatto – a natural subject

A GARDENER'S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto (Photo: Alamy).
A GARDENER’S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto.

A Writer’s year with a great gardener.

WHEN I first arrived at the Beth Chatto Gardens in midsummer 1996, a bright, animated woman called Rosie greeted me and showed me into the house, where gardener and writer Beth Chatto hosted me for morning tea.

I was there to investigate the viability of producing a documentary on Beth and her work, and what struck me immediately was her gracious nervousness. Taking nothing whatsoever for granted, this multiple Chelsea award-winning gardener was as vulnerable as an auditioning actor.

She’d loved the program one of my colleagues had made about another respected local gardener – Suffolk’s Peggy Cole – because it had captured the truth about what it takes to nurture an English garden, and she hoped I could do the same for her.

Once outside, and more relaxed within the fluid environs of her garden, Beth related that she’d made a program about her garden before, but to date, she felt, no-one had captured what the Beth Chatto Gardens was really all about.

We walked, we talked, and Beth encouraged me to get right within the garden itself, to tread through beds to see the workings of the water garden or the structure of the gravel garden.

Passing a small group of visitors, she introduced herself, directly but politely, to a woman who was taking cuttings, not by reprimanding the culprit, but by saying, “Please, feel free …”, despite the well stocked nursery on the other side of the hedge.

That mixture of shock at her garden being picked-at, and her inner turmoil at wanting to share it without rancour, showed a complex woman with a very interesting story. All I wanted to know was when could we start?

I read as much as I could about Beth’s work and her place in post-war English gardening. She patiently gave me time to catch-up, but underlined that we’d need to spend time in the garden, perhaps an entire year, to film it in its fullness.

As a producer new to the company he worked for, that meant I needed to test budgetary terms, and face questions about when the product could be ready for the marketplace. Could the execs wait another Christmas? Had this territory already been covered enough by another company?

GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).
GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).

The best thing I could think to do was simply to start. A cameraman, Alan James (another Essex gardener in his own right), and me, just filmed as the seasons cycled, as they do so dramatically in England. Along the way, I felt sure I would find a way to make the project work for all the stakeholders.

Beth Chatto’s ornamental garden is just one part of her work. Situated at the end of a farm lane, not far from the Essex town of Colchester, it occupies a small gully between working farm fields which Beth and her husband Andrew transformed into their world famous garden.

A commercial nursery makes up almost half of the property, and much of that is taken up by large-scale compost production. I recall Beth’s delight when we proved ourselves willing to film tractors at work on steaming piles of leaf litter. Her approach to our company, with its track record for making programs about farm machinery, was paying off.

On one day’s filming in winter, a quiet, well-dressed man (who looked a bit like I’d imagine a Russian philosopher would) was seated on the other side of the fire in the garden office when I arrived. Rosie asked me to take a seat to warm myself, and Andrew Chatto gently introduced himself.

Beth credits her husband Andrew Chatto with the original inspiration behind their garden for one very simple reason. It was Andrew who came up with the idea of finding plants from across the temperate world, and to grow them in England under conditions that were suited to their needs. This was Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ concept in a nutshell.

To explain why such a basic philosophy became so revolutionary, you’d need to tackle centuries of horticultural collecting conducted by the great botanists who accompanied Britain’s explorers on dangerous voyages to bring seeds and cuttings back home.

The famous glasshouses of Kew were built to house this booty, and to keep it alive against the cold climate. The movement eventually encouraged generations of ordinary gardeners to buy whatever plants we liked, stick them in our back yards, and hope for the best.

Beth and Andrew were every bit as exploratory, not just because of their plant-inspired travels, but also because the climate and soil in Essex are not what you’d call typically English. Certainly the annual rainfall is not what other counties enjoy. The Chattos were also not afraid to wait many years to see what happened.

And what happened speaks for itself … the scrubby gully is now a stunning series of gardens that descend almost imperceptibly along a natural water-course. Preceding Beth’s well-loved books on water and shade gardening, these immaculate green spaces were her laboratory in an ongoing love affair with plants.

DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.
DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Photo: Alamy)

Our filming coincided with the peak early years of Beth’s latest project at the time – her gravel garden. In an ongoing experiment, quite ahead of its time, she vowed to never irrigate this garden, to test the boundaries of gardening under drought conditions, well aware of the tussle to come between farmers and gardeners over access to water.

Here was something an Australian could really get his head around – the gravel garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens reminded me of home, with its sparse, elemental feel and the heat that emanated from the ground, literally inches thick with small stones and filled with plants familiar to me from roadsides in the Outback.

As the months passed we got to know Beth’s staff quite well. I would often catch a glimpse of her observing our filming processes from a distance, and once she saw her gardeners chatting with us and surrendering to the often annoying process of, “now, could you just do that again, and we’ll film it from this angle …”, she would disappear into the house to get on with other work.

As an interviewee on camera Beth Chatto proved a natural. I realised very quickly that I’d only need to capture her in conversation and get Alan to just turn the camera on. Years of communicating her story had given her an edge that needed no other commentary.

In the last few months of filming, Beth kept gently reminding me that she’d like some group shots of the staff, and on one day in the Summer of 1997 we got everyone to down tools and take part in a photo shoot that we committed to tape. As the centre-piece to those moments, I saw Beth about the happiest I’d ever seen her.

She also understood innately what I was doing when I asked one of our execs to be an extra in a whole day’s filming, our one ‘big budget’ spend, working with a crane to capture high-angle motion shots. Beth guided my boss through the highly repetitious process of take after take, until we had it just right.

I became a gardener as a result of my year with Beth Chatto. What I know about gardens I learned from her, particularly about how to live in a garden and not be too precious about the life that runs through it – pets, visiting wildlife, and people who like to take cuttings.


The Beth Chatto Gardens DVD is available from BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Always putting on a play

SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.
SHEPHERD STAR Playing the misunderstood sheep herder, at left, surrounded by siblings and neighbours.

A Writer ventures back into theatre.

I WAS one of those children for whom the world of theatrics was the most sought-after form of play. Whether it was reciting poems for my assembled grandparents, or recruiting the local kids into an impromptu christmas play, I was the keenest, bossiest, most theatrical of them all.

This had more to do with boredom than any great desire for a career in the theatre. Without plays, there seemed to be nothing to do.

To fill in the endless daylight-saving hours on our farm, the shearing shed became a playhouse; whiling away the tedium of school, the annual plays were islands of creativity; and during access visits to my Dad’s place, where none of the adults present seemed to comprehend the finer points of parenting, I made my own fun creating embryonic theatre pieces.

One of these was my adaptation of Saint George and the Dragonet, an iconic 1950s radio play which I dutifully typed-up from the vinyl 45 into a bona fide script.

Back in the relative stability of my home town, I pitched the production to our headmaster, who willingly gave-over the school hall and an assembly session for my production. It may well remain the easiest production I ever got-up.

Friends took on the roles of the Dragon, Damsel in Distress, and Saint George’s sardonic boss. I, of course, slipped easily into the lead role and those of director, writer and designer. Really, I’ve being filling all of the above in various forms ever since.

At high school the entire community got involved in the annual musicals, but by the time school was over I was left to my own devices – for most people, plays were just pretend. A theatrical career was a complete anathema.

Two drama schools drummed the processes of play production into me, but it was boredom, again, which saw me return to the theatre while working in the creative drought of corporate production.

A small advertisement in The Stage newspaper caught my eye, since it was placed by a new company – GIN Theatre – operating in South London. They wanted a director to adapt a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale for a children’s Christmas show.

Now this was something right up my alley.

I chose the tale I’d adapt based on its evocative title – The Girl Without Hands – a classic rite of passage which I suggested we transpose into Victorian England to cement the Christmas feel.

To my surprise, amidst the waves of rejection that year, GIN chose my idea. We auditioned for a cast of actors, went into rehearsal and production at The Studio, a small performing arts centre in Beckenham.

RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from the story by the Brothers Grimm, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).
RESTORED BY FAITH The Girl Without Hands, from an image by Philipp Grot Johann (1841-1892).

All of us were recent drama school graduates, eager for experience and opportunity. Together, we created a beautifully detailed production, rich in theatricality and full of the wonder that the story requires, following as it does the journey of an innocent drawn into the deepest tragedy, eventually restored by faith.

The core group survived the disappearance of some cast after day one (it always happens), and ultimately the lack of bums on seats (it always happens) despite all the hard work, and a small tour to Bromley’s performing arts centre down the road.

The following year I was recruited as Assistant Director on a production of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, staged at The Steiner Theatre in Regent’s Park. This was an altogether much ‘cooler’ outfit, although I missed the camaraderie of GIN.

On day one the director roped the entire cast and crew into an exercise centred-on saying “yes” to everything, aimed at removing blocks and helping us get to know one another. I took part – I had to in the terrible role of Assistant Director, an entity which nobody likes or trusts, and who usually does the lion’s share of the work smoothing actor’s egos and overseeing the graft of rehearsals.

The next day the producer called me with the news that the director had resigned (it often happens) and asking would I take over? Having had “yes” drummed into me, I said that very word, and found myself aged 25 in a life I barely understood directing a play I comprehended even less.

But I was a great actor. The deeply closeted can go to great lengths keeping everyone off the scent, preventing all the wrong questions from being asked.

I duly mimicked the best tools I’d been exposed to at drama school and stumbled through with the more experienced, and therefore more jaded (they often are) actors from north of the Thames.

We got the production to the stage, with some heavy symbolism masking the great gaps in my grasp of Hare’s masterful exploration of relationships in this play.

Another year later more familiar territory revealed itself with the opportunity to design a production of Chekhov’s One Act Plays (adapted by Michael Frayn) at the Tristan Bates Theatre right in the heart of London’s West End.

Five years since washing my hands of theatre design, in one of the most design-friendly theatre capitals in the world, and completely on my own terms, I revelled in bringing this production to life. We got plenty of bums on seats too (it sometimes happens).

By that time I’d left London for good, for the frozen plains of Suffolk. A visit to a castle somewhere in East Anglia, on the same day that a troupe of actors took over the inner keep, set up a simple stage and unfurled some coloured banners, drawing a crowd of hundreds with a raucous energy that could not be ignored, taught me that it matters not where you put on a play.

An audience of less souls than those on the stage, in a ‘proper’ theatre in a ‘proper’ city … or engaged, thrilled crowds before a couple of actors on an old barrel in a castle keep? I know which side my theatrical sensibility falls on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Movin’ on up

MY OFFICE A phone booth off Charing Cross Road, London (Photo: Paul Vlaar).

A Writer’s career goes places? 

TOWARDS the end of my stint fetching food for fabulous people at a post-production facility in Soho, within the dim lighting of editing suites I realised how much I missed the fun of location shooting, and the creativity of starting projects from scratch. Post production was not for me.

So I religiously job-searched through all the usual channels, and in those pre-internet days that involved plenty of footwork.

Every week I’d go to the media and entertainment industry hubs where jobs were posted on notice boards watched-over by office staff jaded from listening to every up-and-coming industry professional in the city. I’d also trawl through industry magazines at the news stand, and then head to my office – a phone booth on Charing Cross Road.

I managed to land a few meetings and interviews with television networks, agents, and production offices, but meetings were as far as these opportunities ever went.

Eventually I was offered a position as a Production Assistant at a small television studio in West London, primarily to work on corporate videos.

‘The Corporates’ dance to a different drum, all very ideas-driven and upbeat. In reality, it’s an industry which relies on making the most boring subjects seem incredibly interesting.

To achieve that, corporations need artists willing to sell their souls for a little while, and with London’s infamous cost-of-living on the increase, and the rent still to pay, I dubiously accepted the invitation.

One of the first things to learn is how to speak Corporate language – a meeting is ‘face time’; giving something a try is ‘running it up the flag pole’; and discussing the fine details over coffee is ‘stirring some sugar over it’.

Just about everything is underscored, literally, with motivational (‘Movin’ on up’) stock music to leave even the most pessimistic participant humming with new-found enthusiasm.

One of the most famous corporate videos ever produced was the management training series presented by John Cleese which cashed-in on his Basil Fawlty notoriety. These set the benchmark in many-a corporate video meeting I attended over the next few years.

My soul has blocked-out most of the utterly boring products, concepts and sales-pitches I made videos about, but there was one project which was so forward-thinking it was impossible to not get genuinely excited about.

This was a drama-documentary produced by an inspiring scientist, Professor Robert (‘Bob’) Spence, of London’s Imperial College of Technology.

Bob had interviewed eminent design engineers about what they imagined human-computer interaction might be like in the year 2020, and he wanted these ideas realised in an ‘envisionment’ of social interaction 25 years into the future. This was my kind of corporate video.

TIMELESS LOCATION Silwood Park House, Berkshire (Photo © Copyright Mick Crawley).

We set about producing what became known as Translations, and it was my role to put a team together to create a drama-style production.

My eye for great locations had fallen on a property owned by the college in Berkshire, a wonderfully out-of-the-way place called Silwood Park House. Once a private home designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905), this place had all the trimmings that made it perfect for a timeless feel.

Now, thanks to one of the core ideas envisaged in Bob’s project – the internet – I was able to watch Translations again via YouTube.

We had very non-John Cleese resources (you’re only allowed to laugh with us, not at us!), but what is amazing about watching this production now is how many of the concepts have become realities – touch screens, flat screens, video conferencing, Intelligent Person Assistants … and there is still plenty of time for the rest of the ideas to see the light of day before 2020.

Student films aside, Translations was my first real crack at a complete production which relied on my skills as a director realising a vision onscreen. I saw it as a warm-up for things to come – working with skilled friends, on location in old homes and gardens, bringing ground-breaking screenplays to the screen.

If only life were so wonderfully linear.

Further work was in short supply (here come the days jobs!), but I did spend most of that summer polishing my second screenplay, Menace, which I developed into a one-hour format for a television production application. Inspired and deeply moved by the homelessness in London, and the impact of Thatcherite policies on Britain in the 1990s, this polemic little piece was full of gritty realities which Other Kingdom lacked, and remains one of my first works not to hit the rubbish bin.

I think the reason it survives is the rejection letter I received, a kind note which appealed to me on two counts – (a), to believe that not everyone was getting such a letter, and (b), that I should not give up writing.

I threw the letter away because I wasn’t sure (a) was true, but almost 20 years on, technology might have changed dramatically, but (b), I am still writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.