Successful as she already was in the worlds of food and business, Prue Leith had a secret hankering before her TV fame came along. ‘I wanted to be like Delia and Nigella in losing their surnames,’ she says. ‘I’ve got there, but now I’ve an added name which rather spoils it.’
She was made a dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June –for which she was ‘thrilled, delighted and grateful’ – but she’s rarely called Dame Prue, and certainly not Dame Prudence. ‘Prudence… horrible name,’ she says.
Her mother, an actress in their native South Africa, wanted three more daughters she would call Faith, Hope and Charity, but Prue was her only girl. ‘My mother thought I’d live up to it but I’ve never been remotely prudent,’ she exclaims, seemingly appalled at the idea.
It’s certainly not a name that conjures up visions of fun, and Great British Bake Off judge Prue is the most enormous fun, laughing most often at herself. Nowhere is that better showcased than in her new series for More4, Prue’s Great Garden Plot.
Prue Leith, 81, and her husband John Playfair, 75, (pictured) share efforts to create a garden for their house in Oxfordshire in a new four-part series on More4
She and her husband John Playfair have been together for ten years, and three years ago they decided to build a new house on land already owned by Prue in Oxfordshire. They moved in last December, then invited the cameras in as they began creating a garden on a two-acre site filled with buried bits of farm machinery.
They even found a 1936 Massey Ferguson tractor holding up the roof of an outbuilding, and a combine harvester that hadn’t been used for 50 years but worked perfectly.
And what a ride the series is. Prue, 81, and John, 75, have flashes of inspiration: there’s a custom-made gazebo garlanded with fragrant yellow climbing roses to hide their septic tank. ‘It’s an attention-getter,’ says Prue. ‘Let’s hope no one sits inside!’
But they make mistakes too, planting cherry trees in wet clay soil which causes the roots to die. Their land is full of ‘lovely round stones,’ says Prue.
‘We put them round the shrubs in borders to anchor them, then an expert came and said it was the worst thing we could do as plants need air. I’m no Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh.’
Certainly she’s known for cooking not horticulture, although her former home – a nine-bedroom 18th-century manor house – had a stunning classical garden and lake which she opened up for charity. But the great thing about this four-part series is that, despite their errors, she and John pick themselves up, sometimes literally, and get on with it.
First John attacks Prue’s lockdown hair with a trimmer, then he attacks the jungly growth outside with an electric strimmer strapped across his body. He takes a spectacular tumble over old tyres – luckily the strimmer’s turned off.
Later, Prue’s pulling on a rope attached to one of the 20ft-high silver birch trees they’re planting because the windy site is buffeting the ‘grovelet’, as she calls it. Another mistake, she admits.
Prue said John’s eyes lit up when she showed him a 1920s map revealing an orchard on their land. Pictured: Prue in front of her new home
‘We should have bought smaller trees and waited for them to grow.’ The effort with the rope causes her to fall over. She hauls herself on to all fours to slowly push herself up.
‘You saw that? That’s funny,’ she says, not caring for dignity. ‘If this programme was about old ladies gardening, that’d be a good sequence.’
Prue’s answer to most things –whether it’s misfortune or the idyll of watching the sun go down over their partly finished garden – is, ‘All we need is a margarita’ or ‘I’m dreaming of a dram on the terrace looking over the countryside’.
Prudence? Horrible name. I’m not remotely prudent
She’s often away filming, and she and John have a new tradition. ‘When I’m nearly home in the evening, I text him and he appears on the step with a glass of red wine. The Bake Off lot tease me all the time as if I’m an alcoholic.’
When they began thinking about the garden, Prue showed John a 1920s map revealing an orchard on their land.
‘His eyes lit up,’ she says. They had 167 rare-breed dwarf fruit trees, and all have done well bar the cherries. They decided it would be a perfect spot for wild flowers.
‘But the grass grew 5ft high,’ she says. They have instead ‘pinched a bit of field within view of the kitchen’ for them.
Prue revealed her favourite plants in the garden are euonymus and weigela. Pictured: Prue and John in episode 1
Among Prue’s favourite plants in the garden are euonymus (or burning bush) and weigela, which has bright, funnel-shaped flowers and is low-maintenance. ‘I don’t like kneeling down,’ Prue confesses.
Their ultra-modern home was designed after they had rejected plans for traditional manor houses. ‘Boring,’ says Prue. A large yellow kitchen fills the modern section with two bedrooms above.
‘We sleep together but there’s a banishment bedroom – we haven’t had to use it yet. I don’t care what mess John has in there, or in his dressing room or study.’
She’s aware of time ticking, but also knows that gardening needs patience. ‘We finished filming in July, but some of the garden has only started looking great since then.’
They have another two acres to take on. The perfect challenge for another series? Let’s hope so.
Prue’s Great Garden Plot, Wednesday, 9pm, More4.