Downton heads into the garden for Old Herbaceous at Weald & Downland Living Museum
Sometimes a reviewer comes up with a pithy quote that's just too good to pass up.
And as Giles Shenton admits, when The Guardian described Old Herbaceous as ‘Downton Abbey with gardening tips’ they hit the nail on the head.
The one-man play was written by former Upstairs Downstairs head scriptwriter, Alfred Shaughnessy in 1979. And since the Kick In The Head company revived it, it's been going strong.
Giles has been playing the sole role of a country house's head gardener, Herbert Pinnegar, since they started touring it in February 2016.
'We’re booking now through until December 2020,' says Giles. 'It's been quite amazing.'
And Giles has become rather attached to the part.
'He’s become quite an old friend actually, the trouble is he keeps creeping into everyday life when he’s not meant to,' he chuckles.
'He’s a bit of a dear old soul, so I don’t mind too much. Alfred Shaughnessy's widow came and saw it a couple of weeks ago when we were down in Devon, which was lovely. That’s the first time she’d seen it done since it was originally performed back in the '80s. She’s delighted that Herbert is going around spreading his pearls of wisdom again.'
The play is the humorous and poignant story of the single-minded gardener and his unrequited love for the owner of the house, Mrs Charteris.
'Herbert’s life is about being in a garden and that’s his work for life, but his story as a human being I think, touches a lot of nerves with a lot of people.'
He’s quite a simple chap – he’s uncomplicated, he’s devoted the whole of his life to the same thing, as a lot of people do, and they don’t get brilliantly rewarded for it. A lot of people recognise that.'
He also puts a large part of its success down to the love story.
'He definitely has feelings for her and he knows nothing can ever happen because of the social divide. And one of the things that happens towards the end when she starts to become forgetful and he visits her in a home and she doesn’t even recognise him, a lot of people have been through that with family members to one degree or another.'
The nature of the play lends it to being put on in the open air as well is in a more traditional theatre setting. This performance as part of Weald & Downland's summer of culture is due to take place outdoors.
‘I think because of the setting and style, it works perfectly well in a theatre setting, but it also works brilliantly outdoors and anywhere with gardens.
'The premise is that the audience has wandered into his little potting shed and because they’ve wandered in he starts chatting to them. It’s an old country house, and like many of those places do now, they open their houses and the gardens to the public to make some money. Herbert's quite used to people popping in, and he tells them his life story.'
Playing Herbert and putting on the play was the catalyst for the creation of Kick in The Head.
‘I bought the script when I was in my early 20s and I absolutely loved it, but I’ve had to wait until now so I’m old enough to get away with playing the part!
‘It’s been sitting on the backburner for a good number of years and then the three of us got together, Simon (Downing) directed it - we’ve known each other for years, we used to do open-air Shakespeare, and Andrew (Brewis) I’ve also known for years – he was my best man. So the three of us got together and it’s grown from that. The company has grown out of Old Herbaceous.
‘It’s done us a lot of favours and opened up a lot of doors for us, so we like Herbert a lot.’
It’s looking like Giles and Herbert are going to be together for a little while longer at least.
‘At the moment, I’m getting the feeling I’ll probably be doing him until I drop dead,’ he laughs.
‘We’re already at the point now where venues we went to three years ago are saying, why don’t you come back next year?
‘And we’re starting to get a lot of bookings now, not just from theatres and outdoor venues, but from gardening clubs and societies – if they’ve got a couple of hundred members they can fill a hall, and in country house hotels.
‘That’s the joy of old Herbert, he seems to cross all of those divides and slot in anywhere.’
Weald & Downland, nr Chichester
Saturday, August 24