Jim Carter interview: ‘Children need to put their phones away and get out into the garden’

Jim Carter with wife Imelda Staunton and their dog Molly in the garden of their London home
Jim Carter with wife Imelda Staunton and their dog Molly in the garden of their London home - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Jim Carter wants to admit to a guilty secret. “I really enjoyed lockdown,” says the Downton Abbey actor, in his trademark sonorous tenor. “Although I only live seven stops from Westminster on the Jubilee Line, I’m lucky enough to have a garden, and spending time in it with my wife [Imelda Staunton, currently starring as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown] is one of the major pleasures in life.”

Carter isn’t gardening today, though he has plenty to say about it.

The actor, best known as butler Charles Carson in the period drama, is campaigning for a return to traditional values, specifically “less screen time and more green time”, or turning off your television and going outside to do something healthier instead.

The 75-year-old boomed that message out loud and clear to a House of Lords reception this summer, sandwiched between speeches by Defra minister Trudy Harrison and Alan Titchmarsh. Carter says today’s children need gardening to be on the national curriculum because horticulture is proven to be good for mental health. Titchmarsh and fellow gardener Carol Klein (incidentally both fellow 70-somethings) are also advocates. A movement is gaining momentum.

Academic studies have shown that spending more time outdoors improves children’s psychological wellbeing and cognitive function
Academic studies have shown that spending more time outdoors improves children’s psychological wellbeing and cognitive function - Getty

Carter told peers that gardening touches on art, design, botany, biology, maths and Latin. Pupils would be taught correct nomenclatural etiquette: “Excuse me, Miss, my Trachelospermum jasminoides is wilting.”

Baroness Blower (an Evelyn Waugh-style name if ever there was one, though she is a Labour peer and former National Union of Teachers general secretary) was so impressed with Carter’s speech she asked him to submit it to a year-long House of Lords inquiry into the future of the horticultural sector. The aim is to discover why growers are struggling to attract staff and meet demand for British-grown plants post-Brexit. Lord Redesdale, also known as Baron Mitford, is running the inquiry, which will report to the Government in late 2023, just to add to the Downton-style aristo tenor.

To be taken so seriously “took me by surprise but was very welcome”, says Carter, who was at the House of Lords event on behalf of children’s hospice garden charity Greenfingers, for whom he and his wife are patrons.

“It’s physical exercise. It’s psychic healing. It teaches patience,” he explains. “The wait for a tiny sunflower seed to become a six-foot plant is endless. It teaches forbearance – to deal with the agony of the squirrel biting the head off the sunflower one had nurtured. It’s healthy and will benefit the NHS and climate change. It will provide a career path for some and lifelong pleasure for others, which you would hesitate to say about algebra.”

Carter and Staunton, who are patrons of Greenfingers, a children’s hospice garden charity, at the Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year
Carter and Staunton, who are patrons of Greenfingers, a children’s hospice garden charity, at the Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year - Getty

The phrase “less screen time and more green time” comes from a 2020 University of Adelaide study, which found that more time outside and less time spent watching TV and on tablets is associated with better psychological outcomes, academic achievement and cognitive functioning among children and adolescents. The scientists who produced it analysed the findings of 186 studies to collate evidence.

At RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May, Carter heard the phrase and it resonated with him: “That really struck a chord with me. Put the phones away and get out into the garden. Stop looking at other people’s lives. Live your own life, particularly for young people, but probably for all of us. Most of us have a phone in our hand most of the time. So I think that’s a good phrase, though I can’t claim it’s original.”

Carter believes it is the right time to act: “Things are different now. The pandemic and lockdown changed everything. I think we need to recalibrate a lot of our lives. Particularly for young people, who missed out on a couple of years of socialising and education – I think they are finding it very difficult to readjust their lives. They’ve missed out on so much.

“I’m hearing that young people are struggling to cope with stress, and every time you turn on Gardeners’ World, everybody talks about gardening as a retreat, as a haven, how it helps you deal with stress. I think you learn so much through gardening; so much about life, so much about yourself. I just think it’s immensely valuable. There must be lots of kids who don’t want to play sport, but to get them outside and help them become healthier by gardening makes a lot of sense. It could also help to take the strain off the NHS.

“Build raised beds in every playground, fill every windowsill with planters,” Carter suggests. “Where inner-city schools have no space, ask local councils and corporations and offices and hospitals to free up some space in their parks and car parks for children to colonise.”

Along with Klein and Titchmarsh, a younger generation of gardeners who have school-age children also want them to be taught horticulture. “Skinny Jean Gardener” Lee Connelly, who teaches his own School Gardening Success programme, says: “The integration of gardening into the national curriculum for primary schools presents a remarkable opportunity to revolutionise education and grow a generation of environmentally conscious individuals. The benefits extend far beyond the classroom, influencing mental health, behaviour and fostering a lifelong passion for horticulture.”

The Government has looked at adding horticulture to the curriculum before. Former education minister Nicky Morgan has said the idea was interesting, but if the Government was to include every subject voters wanted formally taught, “schools would have to stay open to midnight”.

Carter says today’s children need gardening to be on the national curriculum because horticulture is proven to be good for mental health
Carter says today’s children need gardening to be on the national curriculum because horticulture is proven to be good for mental health - Stone RF

A Department for Education spokesman says pupils should be taught a “broad and balanced” curriculum. There’s £15 million of funding for children in deprived areas to get outdoors and learn about the natural world, and a 2022 plan for a “National Education Nature Park”, in partnership with the Natural History Museum, Royal Horticultural Society and others, to help schools “map, manage and enhance” their grounds to create “one vast, virtual nature park”. The park is included in the department’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy for education, alongside plans for a natural history GCSE from September 2025.

But Carter reiterates: “I just think it’s a fantastically healthy thing to do, and personally I think a lot of modern education is about ticking boxes rather than preparing people for life.

“Whether you go into horticulture as a career, or whether you just use it as a hobby or as a salve for the soul, start kids off as young as possible is what I say, and tap into the generosity of gardens and those in the horticultural trade, because gardeners are always very willing to share their expertise and their time. Get old people helping young people, which is good for society as a whole.”

Carter and Staunton’s daughter Bessie is also an actor. She was brought up in West Hampstead, where the family has lived for 30 years. Bessie now has a flat with no garden but, Carter says, she loves nurturing her “indoor jungle of houseplants, like such a lot of young people now.

“The garden was a massive part of her upbringing,” Carter continues. “We didn’t force her into gardening but she had a very outdoors, old-fashioned childhood, and the garden changed according to her needs. She had ropes and swings and ladders and a paddling pool and a tent when she was little. We were never precious about her playing in the garden, so she’s grown up with that.

Carter: ‘There must be lots of kids who don’t want to play sport, but to get them outside and help them become healthier by gardening makes a lot of sense’
Carter: ‘There must be lots of kids who don’t want to play sport, but to get them outside and help them become healthier by gardening makes a lot of sense’ - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

“She’s nearly 30 now, and probably from a generation before the generation that’s addicted to screens. But the garden just gave her health; being out in the fresh air, and not being afraid to get dirty or wet, and looking at tadpoles and frogs and the natural life, which we get so cut off from. When she was young, we used to grow a lot of veg because we wanted her to know where food came from. It doesn’t just come from the supermarket, it comes out of the ground. We don’t do so much of that now, it’s more cut flowers. We grow dahlias and zinnias and cosmos from seed that we use to cut for the house. All that taught her about the natural rhythms of life and the seasons – the things I grew up with in the 1950s. I didn’t have a television until I was 12, so we just grew up outside.”

In contrast, he says, friends’ children who are a decade younger “can’t hold a conversation any more because they’re so addicted to the screen. You don’t converse with the screen so they’re addicted to receiving information silently and not responding in a verbal fashion.”

On childhood gardening, Carter, who attended the fee-paying Ashville College in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, says: “We didn’t do any. The garden was just a playground, which is kind of right for kids. I was never aware of my parents gardening particularly, but they must have done because there was an apple tree and redcurrant and gooseberry bushes and strawberries. We just played cricket and used it as a playground, which was healthy. But it must have seeped in through the pores somehow; you just instinctively knew when blackberries would be ripe, and you didn’t pick the ones where a dog could pee. Beechnuts you could crack open with your thumbnail, and eating an apple off a tree was a great joy. It was just being aware of the natural world. They were different times really, and we’ve got very divorced from that. People live much more isolated indoor lives now, which I think is a shame.”

Carter says: ‘Build raised beds in every playground, fill every windowsill with planters’
Carter says: ‘Build raised beds in every playground, fill every windowsill with planters’ - Emma Kim/Getty

An actor since he dropped out of university half a century ago to join a Brighton fringe theatre group, nowadays Carter “picks and chooses” what he acts in and waits for “interesting things” to come along. Next, he is in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel Wonka, which will be out at Christmas, playing a “depressed chartered accountant” in what he describes as a “big musical extravaganza”. Paddington’s Paul King is director, and the stellar cast includes Timothée Chalamet, Keegan-Michael Key, Rowan Atkinson, Sally Hawkins and Olivia Colman.

While resting, he and Imelda “love to visit gardens. We’re elderly folk, so it’s one of our main recreations.”

Bourton House Garden in the Cotswolds, not a million miles away from where Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, is a favourite. “It’s a high-intensity garden, with plants overwintering in the greenhouse and being brought out in the summer.” The “great green lungs” of Kew and Hampstead Heath, where you can get lost in wilderness within London, are also special: “Anywhere where things are growing, we’re happy.”

Unexpectedly, Carter is a fan of rewilding: “In Regent’s Park, every bit of green grass was mown, but there are lots of spaces now turned over to long grass. That doesn’t stop people sitting in it and walking through it, but it creates a corridor for insects and birds and I think it’s fantastically attractive.”

He remembers those months of glorious weather during the first lockdown in 2020. “We were able to observe the full life cycle of emperor dragonflies, to watch the torrid mating habits of the dunnock and to hear the delirious pleasure of bumblebees in the poppies, because there was no background hum of London traffic to interfere. We deadheaded, pruned, weeded and simply sat and observed with uncluttered joy. We were aware of how lucky we were to be able to indulge ourselves and understood how different the experience was for parents trying to work from home while trying to school their kids. Gardening was our joy and our sanity.”

Through years of enjoying his garden, he has learned that tending to it is a vital means of escape from the stresses of modern life. A valuable lesson to learn – and one that he believes should be instilled in young minds as early as possible.