This year’s first episode of Open Country was powerful. The presenter Helen Marks went to Hastings to consider its small fishing fleet of under-ten-metre boats that have worked off the shingle for over 1,000 years. The fiftysomething Marks is a fearless, intelligent presenter – her sympathetic Borders accent occasionally hinting at Ulster too (she has worked as a presenter there) – who does the bravura number of just going up to people, introducing herself and saying what she’s there for several times an episode. This gives the programme an intensely here-andnow feel, as though absolutely nothing has been edited out.
“Can I come into your shed, Arthur?” she asked one of the fish-sellers on the beach who help drag the boats up lard-smeared wooden boards that sit on the shingle. “ . . . Yes,” barked Arthur, sounding a little surprised, as this rather intense woman seemingly came out of nowhere (you could picture Marks in her navy cagoule and fleece) and proceeded to ask him a series of searching questions about the fish he had been selling that week. “Plaice, sole, grey mullet, shad . . .” he listed. “Shad?” challenged Marks, fiercely. “It’s between a herring and a sea bass,” shrugged Arthur. Marks later questioned a fisherman on the exact nature of a huss (a catshark) and said, with somewhat narrowed eyes, “Right, I think I’ll take a look.” You definitely want Marks inside your tent pissing out.
At one point she coaxed a fisherman into recalling the dangers of the job before effective lifejackets: “Nobody knew what to do if you went over the side. You just did whatever came naturally. Which was drown . . .” A couple of times she broke off to describe for us, quite brilliantly, ropes pulled taut as boats were hauled from the sea or the gladiatorial battle between gulls over scraps of fish on the shore (“One has taken flight with fish in his mouth but – oh!”). How to wrap the rather mesmeric programme up without letting it drift once? With typical forensic skill Marks simply stood aside to make room for a genuinely hand-wringing monologue given by a fleet representative about new legislation forcing fishermen to throw back the (many) cod they land – their swim bladders ruptured in the nets, not one fish survives. Marks didn’t even sign-off, restoring a kind of sanity, in tone at least.