Go team: John Craven (left) and the other presenters of Countryfile
Show Hide image

Vintage cheddar: Countryfile – John Craven’s 25th Anniversary on BBC1

While I understand the impulse to watch a show about otters and dry stone walling, I can’t understand the success of Countryfile at all. It’s so awful: so cheesy and laboured.

Countryfile: John Craven’s 25th Anniversary
BBC1

In 2001, at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis, I was in a car with a couple of friends and a man who is now very senior indeed in the Labour Party. We were talking about the burning of the animals. I was in a state of high anxiety about this – my father would give me more gruesome details every day in a phone call from his home in the Peak District – and said so. These horrible pyres would, I insisted, play very badly with many voters. The baby politician, however, was unbothered. “Not Labour voters,” he said. “They don’t care about the farmers.”

I remember feeling quite stunned by this. I thought about all the bearded, lefty, rambling teachers and lecturers I’d known growing up in Sheffield: the kind of men who headed out every weekend to stride across the moors; who would nod a grateful good morning to the farmers whose land they needed to cross; who thought nothing of pulling a marooned sheep out of a bog by its horns, knowing full well its value to its no doubt struggling owner. In my gut, I knew he was wrong.

I thought about this as I watched a special edition of Countryfile, in which John Craven celebrated 25 years on the programme (20 July, 7.20pm). Metropolitan media types and politicians might like to ponder that Countryfile is the most popular current affairs show on television, regularly attracting audiences of over six million (compare that to, say, Newsnight, which is watched on average by a paltry 600,000). People love and care deeply about the countryside and this goes for urban Labour voters as much as rural Tories.

The producers of Countryfile, at least, seem to get this. Their show is aimed at people like me who live in large cities and spend their lunch hour googling cottages in the Yorkshire Dales rather than at men and women who rise at dawn to milk their cattle. It’s Country Living magazine, not Farming Today. But while I understand the impulse to watch a show about otters and dry stone walling, I can’t understand the success of Countryfile at all. It’s so awful: so cheesy and laboured, so unchallenging and Pooterishly earnest.

Appointed editor of this special edition, Craven called his production team together for a meeting, which was a bit like watching Grandpa Werther interact with his “grandchildren”: all he required for the impression to be complete was a big bag of those famously smooth butter candies. He had, he promised, tasks for everyone. Matt Baker – yes, him off The One Show – would be driving a vintage Aston Martin down a Buckinghamshire lane, a “story” Craven had come up with thanks to his “own knowledge of the Chiltern Hills”. Tom Heap would be investigating the health benefits (or not) of organic cabbages. Ellie Harrison would be trying to work out the state of play for British wildlife (turtle doves: down by more than 90 per cent). Meanwhile, Adam Henson would, as usual, be on his Cotswolds farm, frolicking wildly with his new donkey foal.

“I remember when you were a new arrival,” Craven chuckled, on meeting this long-legged creature – which gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of links Countryfile favours script-wise. To put it another way: they make Miliband, Cameron and co sound utterly natural. Ah, the times Craven has had on the show. He has been to so many different places – Bedfordshire was mentioned – and met so many different people (Alan Titchmarsh, Jilly Cooper, with whom he once lay in a meadow).

The climax of this Radio 2-inflected nostalgia fest came at Henson’s farm, where a specially commissioned cake had been laid on, plus a bottle of bubbly (given the debate
about BBC entertainment budgets, we can only pray that this was Lidl cava rather than a bottle of Dom P purloined from some
high-up’s mini-fridge). The cake featured a model of Craven standing by a gate, a verdant field expanding behind him like green lava. It was, in sugarcraft terms, something of a triumph, though it struck me as weird that this tiny Craven, who looked a little like Brains from Thunderbirds, appeared to be wearing Ugg boots rather than wellies.

“Here’s to another 25 years!” said Henson, perhaps a little too loudly. Uh, oh, I thought, the ghost of Judith O’Reilly now suddenly on patrol on the undulating expanses of the elaborate confection. Behind his glasses, Craven’s currant eyes briefly widened, though whether in alarm or pleasure I could not tell.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Getty
Show Hide image

We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge