Countryfile: John Craven’s 25th Anniversary
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.