Seabrook on... making a spectacle

The news that 2009 will see the last Royal Show is greeted with regret. This show, like many others, has seen great changes over the years.

My early attendances at "the Royal" in the 1960s were spent working in the huge floral marquees, where size and standards of exhibit challenged the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The Royal moved site each year in those days and travelling in a three-tonne ex-army Bedford lorry from Essex to Newcastle-upon-Tyne took more than a day. Flowers followed by train. We slept overnight in that lorry for what few hours there were to sleep. Agricultural shows then moved to permanent sites, the site infrastructure was improved and we progressed to using a caravan for the overnights.

In those days, Chelsea show space was earned by exhibitors building displays regularly at the RHS fortnightly London halls shows to prove ability. We applied by single letter for Chelsea show space and had a single letter of acceptance back, followed by another posting of exhibitor tickets.

It is all very different now: my Chelsea show file this year is more than one-inch thick and the books of rules and regulations is truly frightening. A retailer of Mexican handcrafted fine jewellery recently announced a move from 100 per cent show trading to shows and shops. It has found the costs of both are similar, with the only difference being that show sales come in big, short bursts. Are we to see the return of garden shops?

How is it that national musical events with ticket prices over £100 sell out in hours while flower shows are either downsizing or failing?

Part of the explanation, I think, is the shrinking size of individual floral, fruit and vegetable exhibits. Big, superb floral displays are needed to provide the spectacle that attracts the crowds. The recent emphasis on garden design and celebrity gardeners has, in my view, been the kiss of death.

What we need now is some floral theatre.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster

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