Marion Cran, Celebrity Gardener

Marion Cran, ‘the doyen of all listeners who are also amateur gardeners’ was one of the BBC’s first radio stars.[1] She was one of scores of women invited to Savoy Hill to broadcast as part of the pioneering Women’s Hour programme yet was the only one to have lasting appeal. Her ‘lush and sentimental’ talks on gardening made her ‘astonishingly popular’ and propelled her to national fame.[2] She broadcast her first Gardening Chat on 6 August 1923 and fortnightly thereafter. Very possibly her Fleet Street connections (she worked on Burlington Magazine) meant she was known to Ella Fitzgerald, the programme’s producer. Gardening as a career for women had become a possibility since the late 1880s when the first horticultural colleges were established.3 0 Cran, a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, had written two gardening books giving her the requisite expertise to broadcast.[3] [4]

What made Cran distinctive was her warm, informal style.[5] A mature woman in her forties, she had a natural ability to engage with the audience and to speak directly to them. Her scripts were written ungrammatically and conversationally, her language was florid and descriptive. This is immediately evident in the preface to Garden Talks a book of her radio broadcasts published in 1925. Claiming to be ‘no expert’ Cran was instead ‘a learner talking to fellow learners’, she was a poet, a dreamer, an observer. ‘We have ranged the days, from dawn to dusk, and the seasons through and back again and discussed how to make cuttings ... how to make paths and little formal town-gardens ... and have talked of roses ... wild flowers and birds’, she effused. з [6] Her appeal was not so much the practical as the lyrical. She transported her listeners to lush countryside and beautiful outdoor spaces. Cran cultivated a sizeable and appreciative audience, cementing her celebrity by publishing more than a dozen gardening books.

Cran’s talks were still a regular afternoon fixture when Hilda Matheson assumed responsibility for the Talks Department in 1927. Although her timeslot had been on a Saturday (still a workday for most employees, with Sunday the only official day off) as part of the switch to Household Talks, Cran was moved to Friday afternoons. Despite her longevity and popularity, Cran’s fee remained five guineas. The higher status of evening broadcasts is evident from negotiations she conducted in March 1929 where she successfully raised her fee to the standard ten guineas for two specialist 7.00 pm talks. These were given under the auspices of the National Gardens Guild and involved writing 1,500 words ‘in a rather particular technique’.[7] Cran pooh-poohed a request that these talks be published in The Listener pointing out how a talk that was ‘colloquial, easy, intricate’ would not make a good magazine article, but similarly, how a ‘scholarly, literary’ talk would sound bone-dry.[8] This was a moot point. There was frequently tension between Matheson and Richard Lambert, editor of The Listener, about the transposing of a talk to the written page.[9] Cran also jested whether, in these evening talks, she would have to become more ‘highbrow’, perhaps a reference to Matheson’s intellectual predilections.

Evidently a friendship developed between Cran and her producer Elise Sprott. Sprott visited ‘Coggers’, Cran’s home in Kent and Cran was in turn invited by Sprott to BBC events such as a ‘do’ at the Corporation’s Sports Ground, Motspur Park.[10] This close association would become problematic for Cran. Her demise on the airwaves coincided with Sprott’s transfer from the Talks Department in the summer of 1931. Almost certainly Cran was displaced by C.H. Middleton who broadcast his first gardening talk in May 1931. Without Sprott to champion her, Cran’s link with the BBC was severed. Middleton also had a very different style. Both a down-to- earth and captivating speaker, he offered listeners practical advice, particularly on vegetables.[11] With an expansion in suburban gardening, this was seen as more apposite and he quickly became indispensable. Later, from 1933, Vita Sackville-West became the voice of the beauty of gardening, similar territory to Cran’s, which made her return impracticable. In 1937, the drama producer Peter Creswell contacted the Talks Department on Cran’s behalf (they were old friends) alerting them to Cran’s feelings of grief and hurt that, despite her great popularity, she had not been asked back to the BBC since Savoy Hill.[12] The memo was passed on to the producer of women’s talks Janet Quigley who contacted Cran. However, her suggestion for a series on ‘Gardens I Have Seen’ never came to fruition.[13]

Cran’s ten years as a broadcaster reveal how someone expert in their field could become a national star. Not everybody liked her whimsical style but her ability to engage the listener made her immensely valuable to the Corporation. Cran spoke predominantly to the female daytime audience; C.H. Middleton’s appeal, on the other hand, was such that it embraced men and from the mid-1936 his weekly In your Garden slot was moved from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Cran’s relationship with Sprott may also have been significant. She might have protected a woman who had become her friend from being discarded, even though her style was no longer deemed appropriate. Ray Strachey’s broadcasting career was also, to some extent, dependent on the whim of her producers but rather than a singular expertise, she built up a reputation of being able to talk with authority on a variety of subjects.

  • [1] Radio Times, 6 August 1929.
  • [2] BBC/WAC: RCONT 1: Marion Cran Talks (hereafter MCT): Creswell to Barnes, 17September 1937.
  • [3] The Women’s Farm and Garden Association was founded in 1899.
  • [4] Mrs George Cran (1913) Garden of Ignorance (London: Herbert Jenkins); (1921)Garden of Experience (London: Herbert Jenkins).
  • [5] Simon Elmes (2012) Hello Again: Nine Decades of Radio Voices (London: RandomHouse) pp. 34-6.
  • [6] Marion Cran (1925) Garden Talks (London: Methuen).
  • [7] MCT, Cran to Sprott, 1 March 1931.
  • [8] MCT, Cran to Sprott, c. April 1931.
  • [9] Richard Lambert (1940) Ariel and All his Quality (London: Gollanz) pp. 112-14.
  • [10] MCT, 21 June 1929, 12 September 1929, 30 June 1930.
  • [11] For a discussion on C.H. Middleton see Elmes, Hello Again, pp. 61-5; AndrewsDomesticating the Airwaves, pp. 66-81.
  • [12] MCT, Creswell to Barnes, 17 September 1937.
  • [13] MCT, Quigley to Cran, 2 November 1937.
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