Sunday, March 18, 2007 by Paul Stump
Take a deep breath. Mmmmm, springtime. The frost’s melting off the osiers. Time to get out into the big outdoors.
The British – unlike the peoples of most civilised mainland European nations and through the historical accident of the Industrial Revolution – lost most of their congenital links with the land nearly 200 years ago and have very little idea of what it is for, aside of picturesque adornment or a regular source of edible ordure, some “meat” and two “veg”. Compare this with most Germans, French, Italians or Spaniards, who can still taste the soil in the sap of their family trees, and whose dietary preferences reflect this.
Time was that Country File was a fuck-you mantra, the weekly propaganda bulletin of the National Farmers Union; a whinge against Bruxellois diktat so predictable that you could set your seasonal clock to it. Why can’t we feed cows the slurry from Norwegian drake abattoirs? Why can’t we plough up SSIs? Why are professional pains in the arse allowed to protest against our generational crimes against the British palate and animal welfare we’ve committed since the Enclosure Acts?
No more. There’s precious little about fistulous withers, John Deere injector valves, sarcoptic mange mites or set-aside on Sunday mornings any more. Despite the holdover of the forensically exact “Farmer’s Forecast”, which offers the coming week’s weather with a scientific juxtaposition of honesty and exactitude that shames mainstream bulletins, and with none of the accompanying care-and-share hand ballet, things are changing. Farmer Palmer, you are the weakest link. Now geddorff moy laaand!
Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Well, to conurbial media types, yes, which proves just how wrong the British get the country. Country File’s makeover is not necessarily a good thing. The programme’s 21st century cru is like the Toy Town revamp of the OS’ 1:50000 maps, in which the countryside is rendered as a colour-coded, pictogrammaticised leisure amenity of picnic-site and viewpoint and public bog.
And with a surge in be-greened Islingtonians demanding news of how to live ethically, the right-to-roam, promiscuously-anarchistic ethos which has defaced our imagined triangulation (with the best of intentions) is now overtaking the only widely available show to deal with non-urban issues. With Michaela Strachan whooping just that tiny bit too much in various leisure and lifestyle features, things don’t look good. So how is the makeover going?
Country File’s brief is quite a responsibility and it must be said that the early-rising, shitty-fingernailed clodhoppers, from Dungeness shrimpers to Radnorshire post-bus drivers shouldn’t fret too much. This is a confident little show inhabiting its own niche with the cockiness of a cuckoo, doing pretty well, but, as with most rural phenomena, needs to be watched and scrutinised closely for it to yield its best results. British TV, always London-centric, still has an overwhelmingly metropolitan and urban bias in terms if output which far outstrips the demographic dichotomy between urbes and rures.
British TV has always regarded the great outdoors as a bit freaky, one for exotic naturalists, shouty-scouty types and excitable youngsters (interestingly, John Craven, Juliet Morris, Diane-Louise Jordan, CBBC veterans all, are now Country File stalwarts). Matters of cultural identity are at stake out there in carrot-cruncher land, but you’d never know it if you watch TV. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Peasants’ Revolt to Wensleydale cheese cooperatives, these things make us up, who we are as much as the trials and travails of Wayne and Colleen. Similarly, depopulation, factory farming, the artificial deformation of countryside transport infrastructure from Beeching’s mid-60s rail closures onward are matters of major concern to anyone interested in the evolution of society.
On this particular Sunday, Craven was in the Fens. Aside of a fairly pointless few minutes on Ely Cathedral, we had a nicely-turned snatch of eel-trapping on the Great Ouse, a barmy Scouser bathing in the freezing surf off the Wirral’s wilder western dunes, a thoughtful little lens into the factory farming of chickens, and – oh dear – Michaela yelping her way along the A35 through the New Forest. This was one of Country File’s less auspicious episodes; at its best, it gently belittles agribusiness, files a living library of dying dialects and ailing accents from Suffolk to Ceredigion. It emphasizes occlusion, difference; TV’s view of Britain is that seen from, or immediately accessible by, motorway, be it social habit, demography or culture, the 21st century as dictated by what can be bought in a Welcome Break service area (look at Abinger Hammer or Granchester or Penrith these days). Country File’s remit is to forage over the boondocks.
There is, admirably, little time for “inclusivity” – Country File’s producers don’t seem to adhere to a quota-driven pretence, to make the show more appealing to the young, to gays, to Asians, or to young gay Asians, to unipedal single mums etc. The palpable absence of a focus group on the editorial is as bracing as the Cambridgeshire sky towering above Craven’s head. There have been sensible and undemonstrative features on “immigrants” and “outsiders” in rural communities. That’s all – Country File has not yet been asked to remove to the pretend, infantilist world of Balamory, where all and sundry’s differences, essentially urban, are miraculously meliorised.
One of Farmer Palmer’s favourite sayings was that “yon townees dun understand the woys of the cundrysoide”. Actually, what Country File is grasping towards is a social shift in thinking and demographic (housebuilding, ecophilia) which suggests that this may be set to change. For better? For worse? The programme doesn’t say – but that such issues still arise on terrestrial TV and are discussed rationally is a matter for some encouragement.
When Country File gets it right, it vaguely summarises what prime-time BBC2 used to do best; a 40 Minutes on a Dean Forest herder and his inbred ilk, a conductor on the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway in his final year of service, or hairy-arsed 18-wheeler pilots charged with taking the 160,000 bird-flu turkey carcases from Bernard Matthews to their fiery grave. On today’s edition, there was nothing of the Fens’ jealously-guarded reputation as the stock-car and line-dance capital of the UK. The scandal of Morecambe Bay and the fate of poor immigrant cocklers wasn’t flinched from, and the only farmers allowed to beef these days are ones in genuine need, the put-upon hill-herders of the Celtic fringe, but still too little attention is paid to the national outrage of piffling agricultural wages.
There is a tendency to retread the 1930s advertising vernacular on the countryside as a playground, commoditised as leaflet and poster. Strachan’s fluff, like her leisurely spin in a blue BMW Mini and the flabby Liverpudlian pinkly fresh in the sunrise suggests that the prognosis is troubling. There’s nothing about property prices in Stow-on-the-Wold yet, but features on pest control among the national cattle herd and the passage of various parliamentary green and white papers that affect thousands from shepherds to sub-postmistresses are dwindling from the programme. There is not remotely enough on the threat to Green Belt land. But it’s not all bleak – there seems to be a birder tendency within the production team which pushes features on marshland habitats. And rightly so. Just because some nutcases wield shotguns and burn pallets and vote UKIP is no reason to either damn an entire demographic, in the same way as that a dreamt-of smallholding is any reason to idealise it.
Country File is managing to reflect this diversity. Just about. Like spring sunshine, make the most of it while it lasts.