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A whistle-stop tour of the wonderful world of botany

Gillian Reynolds finds there’s more to Radio 4’s lively series Plants: From Roots to Riches than sheep and seeds

kathy willis
Professor Kathy Willis talked about our relationship with plants on Plants: From Roots to Riches Photo: BBC

Given the British passion for gardening you’d think Plants: From Roots to Riches (Radio 4, daily) would be a guaranteed success with the audience. Botany, however, is a science, digging deeper than Gardeners’ Question Time, and natural science is what this series is about. It hopes to follow in the steps of A History of the World in 100 Objects by unfolding hidden narratives, rediscovering the familiar, bringing the listener into privileged circles of authority and expertise.

On Monday my mind’s eye was in Kew Gardens, looking at the oldest pot plant in the world, discovering how plants got the names we know them by now through the universal classification system devised by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. Yesterday’s episode started underground, deep below Piccadilly Circus in a vault where Linnaeus’s archive is stored, and then, given that time travel is what radio does better than any other medium, we were whisked back into the 18th century, watching Joseph Banks persuade a rich young man, James Edward Smith, to buy the Linnaeus specimen collection.

Why does all this matter? Because, as presenter Kathy Willis, head of science at Kew Gardens, briskly explains, plants are what we eat, use, trade in. They have always changed history (think sugar, rubber, cotton, wool, spices, grains), and now, with a hungry world to supply, they matter more than ever.

The tone is informed but informal, the pace is lively. Willis and her producer Adrian Washbourne expect us to keep up. I struggle. My straining brain tends to linger more on the narrative than the expert opinions. But I loved the thought of Smith buying that Linnaeus collection in spite of hot competition from Catherine the Great, thus becoming the benefactor who harnessed new knowledge to the power of the state. (King George III, a personal friend of Banks, was as alive to that notion as the Prince of Wales is today.) This, as Willis showed, is where genetics started, hence the story of how Australia’s sheep industry began with a single Spanish merino brought to England, crossbred with Lincolnshire sheep, a resulting flock sold to Australia. There’s more to this series than sheep and seeds and why a strain of honeysuckle is called Banksia but even if I retain only that it’s an adventure.

The Leadership Gap (Radio 4, Fridays) is, on the other hand, unexpectedly bewildering. Sir John Tusa is dealing with a subject he knows well, having led the BBC World Service and the Barbican (and done both very well). The thing is, he tries to pack too much in. He and producer Phil Tinline have got a great line-up of top managers in every conceivable field and, whether opining on banking or the BBC, retail or the NHS, they’ve jigsawed together all the expert observations to cumulative blurring point.

Last week’s episode, the second of three, was about responsibility. Not enough of it, all agreed. Accountability has become a cloud, a fog. One clear line is needed. (Yes, but how?) Leaders are different from managers. (Well, actually, most of us know that.) It’s important to keep in touch with the workforce. BBC Director–General Tony Hall says he spends a fifth of his time doing that. (Good. He’ll have noticed that having six presenters on the Today programme – make that five, now Evan Davis is going – doesn’t make up for losing reporters.) The best thing about this series is Sir John Timpson, Tusa’s accompanying expert, who knows more about trade, training and running a business than anyone else here but who barely gets a word in. Who’s accountable for that, then?

The Verse That Stings (Radio 4FM, Sunday), was about the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope and why Ian Hislop and Armando Iannucci, contemporary satirists both, love his verse satires so much. If they’d been left to talk about this between themselves I would have enjoyed the programme more. Its additional trio of experts interrupted their flow, adding little. The fact that Pope was a Catholic wasn’t even mentioned until two thirds of the way through. Now that’s a serious mistake. It is as important to know this when trying to grasp Pope’s perspective on the world as it is to understand that he was small in stature and pitifully stooped. As for there being little verse satire today, as claimed, I must refer Messrs Hislop and Iannucci to the works of my esteemed colleague Fairy Gill, whose couplets may proclaim her more of a panto fairy than an Alexander Pope-ish sylph but whose annual musings have chronicled many a radio folly and foretold at least one mighty BBC fall.

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