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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.