Gardeners' Question Time hands the trowel to Belfast woman Kathy Clugston
Ahead of taking on her new role as chair of the hugely popular Gardeners' Question Time, Belfast broadcaster Kathy Clugston tells Jenny Lee about why she won't be smelling the roses, her student antics at Queen's, and reading the radio-listening masses a bedtime story
HAVING moved back to Belfast last November and purchased her own home, complete with outdoor space, Kathy Clugston has big plans for making her courtyard come to life. But she's waiting on getting some expert advice – and there'll be a plenty of that when she takes over as chair of long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Gardener's Question Time.
The first show with the BBC radio continuity announcer and newsreader at the helm will be broadcast next Friday.
Despite having contributed to the programme in the past, Clugston, an amateur gardener who enjoys growing her own herbs and plants in window boxes and planters, found the offer of the job "a huge surprise".
"The executive producer asked me for a coffee and was telling me Eric Robson was retiring and I had no inkling of what was coming next," says 49-year-old Clugston, known to many on land and sea as the northern Irish voice of the Shipping Forecast. "When he asked me if I was happy to be considered for the role, I blurted out that I didn't know enough about gardening.
"It turns out that's exactly what they were wanting as it's the panel of gardeners and horticultural experts who are the ones who need the knowledge. It's totally unexpected, but really exciting. I have had a few pinch-me moments since I started at Radio 4 – my first Shipping Forecast, reading the news on the Today programme – but this beats them all.
"I’m most looking forward to visiting the gardens, and meeting Radio 4 listeners, in parts of the country that I might otherwise never have gone to. One of my jobs as host will be to make new listeners feel welcome. I’m a novice and won’t be shy about asking the panellists to spell things out if they get too technical."
Among those panellists are award-winning landscape architect Bunny Guinness – who Clugston introduced herself to at a Gardeners' Question Time Summer Garden Party at Mount Stewart last summer. Her reaction was quite unique.
"I shook her hand and said, 'Sorry, I'm Kathy Clugston. She appeared shocked and went on to tell me how her chicken, was called Kathy Cluckston," she laughs.
Gardeners' Question Time has been running for 72 years, with the aforementioned Robson chairing the show for the past 25 years. Has Clugston's predecessor offered any advice?
"He's been very encouraging and just said to trust the panel and try to have fun with it," she says.
While she has ideas for the features section of GQT, she won't be making any sweeping alterations – at least not yet.
"It's been going so long, you mess about with it at your peril. The basic format of gardeners coming along with their gardening problems and an expert panel answering them will never change; however, that's not to say that it could benefit from some changes.
"We are aware of the trend in gardening among people in their 20s and 30s and that people are more interested in indoor plants because they don't have their own garden, so it's my role to get the balance between appealing to new gardener's as well as those who are extremely knowledgeable."
Clugston, who will combine her new role with existing work on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, admits she has been "swotting up" on gardening, visiting her friends' gardens and touring local gardening centres with her mum.
"I love garden centres anyway because you always get a lovely cup of tea and scone," laughs Clugston, who has been eyeing up camellias, Japanese maple trees, ferns and alpine plants for her own garden.
Something she won't be experiencing during her broadcasts at gardens across the UK is the smell of freshly cut grass and sweet-smelling blooms: Clugston suffers from anosmia, meaning that she has no sense of smell. It's a condition she was born with.
"I believe only about one per cent of the population are born with the condition, with a larger number suffering some sort of smell problems due to viral conditions or age," says Clugston, who hasn't let the condition hold her back.
"I am slightly obsessive about gas and have carbon monoxide alarms in my home, but apart from that and not being able to smell smoke or if food is off, it's not dangerous.
"People feel I'm hard done by by not being able to smell roses but many people have sensory challenges – such as sight or hearing – and gardens and green spaces can be appealing for many reasons. For me, it's the beautiful colours and the sense of calmness a garden gives that brings me joy."
Clugston studied French and Russian at Queen's University Belfast, where she was actively involved in the drama society, alongside many who went on to enjoy careers in performing, including Colin Murphy, Alan McKee, Conor Grimes, Tim Loane and Stephen Wright (who produced The Fall and Line of Duty).
"It was before there was an official drama department at Queen's and we had such a laugh. We were like the kids from Fame, putting on shows ourselves. My favourites were Midsummer's Night Dream and the Noel Coward play, Private Lives," she says.
At just over 6ft in height, Clugston laughs, "I could read well, but I couldn't move", but admits the experience helped her on the path to broadcasting. After starting off doing voice overs, she worked as a continuity announcer and transmission director at BBC Northern Ireland from 1996 to 2003, as well as lending her voice to the BBC Northern Ireland animated comedy series The Folks on the Hill, with the late satirist Sean Crummey.
"Sean was an absolute legend. I mainly did the voice of Anne Robinson and we did The Weakest Link with Sean voicing politicians such as David Trimble and Ian Paisley," laughs Clugston, who also voiced Posh Spice and Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún.
So shall we hear her bursting into a Teresa May impression on air some day?
"No, I can't do her. I'm not really an impressionist, I was just in the right place at the right time with Folks on the Hill."
After some time working in Amsterdam, Clugston began working on Radio 4 in 2006. Her voice may also be familiar through announcing station stops on NI Railways or as the voice Clugston on TomTom sat navs.
For many, though, it's her calm voice on Radio 4's iconic Shipping Forecast that they look forward to most.
"While amateur sailors still rely upon it, many listeners just tune in for a bedtime story," she laughs. "We read it at the end of the late news shift. It's quite a challenge as you read for 10 minutes straight, slowly and taking pauses in unnatural places, but I love it."
:: Kathy Clugston will chair her first Gardeners' Question Time on Friday May 3 at 3pm on BBC Radio 4. The show is repeated on Radio 4, Sundays at 2pm.