Monday, October 02, 2006

Goodbye Farmer Palmer - In Praise of CountryFile

I suppose it comes to us all; grumpy anomie at urban shallowness and rush, snapping at staff in PC World, empty rhapsodising about the Dordogne. But enough of the sentient among us have spent enough time in the British countryside to realise that the fantastically overdone yokel stereotypes of Viz's Farmer Palmer are not always that overdone around the village local or the gallop or the byre. One Scottish-Yemeni acquaintance of mine (female), whose luxurious, biscuity tan might have passed her for a particularly exotic Catalan, overheard one Lincolnshire couple engage in a long and loud conversation about 'forced Islamic clitoridectomies' (it'd take too long to render this fantasy into the demotic). At the next table. Eighteen inches away. Into which most of the pub then joined. This may or may not have been in Twenty, which is twinned with the moon - no atmosphere, they say ((c) trad, arr. Meades, 1997).

But researching a book on real cider this year has uncovered a Cameronian makeover of middle England's reactionary attitudes. You always want to hug a tree when it's done. Admittedly, those attempting to organicise or preserve threatened orchards of pear and apple are more likely to pull out a copy of Hergest Ridge than the FT or Mein Kampf ("very clever man, that Hitler"), but I've rarely felt as much of a welcome in the hedgerows as there seems to be right now. And CountryFile's reflecting this. John Craven, once as wooden as a giant sequoia, is fronting the most improved programme on British TV. Hell, it even makes Michaela Strachan and Ben Fogle watchable.

Once a show that was little more than a mouthpiece for the National Farmers' Union, CountryFile, tucked away in its Godslot Sunday ghetto, manages to marry touchy-feely Islingtonian weekend-only ecology with the often bonechillingly squalid actualities of rural life. Leisure and business co-exist with a harmony most county councils must dream of. Those particularly up-against it (e.g. hill-farmers, oyster-pickers) get as much space as windsurfers or fell-runners.

Craven's arch pauses and timing - which must surely have 'inspired' most news presentation de nos jours, notably that of Feargal Keane - are still obtrusive, but what impresses about the show is its breadth of range. The volunteers who maintain paths in Snowdonia are granted as much time as whelk-catchers on the East Anglian saltings. The pros and cons of EU and Westminster agricultural policies, the blight of rural depopulation and weekender inflation of property prices rubs shoulders with Michaela squealing her way down some rapids in Weardale.The result is agreeably watchable, but also thought-provoking. There is a seemingly real commitment to championing organic and/or home-grown food, but Abroad is never dissed. Icelandic or French fisherman, Spanish olivegrowers, Belgian brewers, are never Mail-ishly condemned out of hand. Pro-hunt views seem out of the loop too, but there is a sprightly aversion to PC-ness for the sake of it.

CountryFile is also laudable for its care to painstakingly localise news and features. This is not just mere, mean parochialism. It recalls a recently lost art of British TV, the ability of local broadcasters to bring to life their little constituencies. Because they couldn't afford to send presenters and crews very far, they had to milk what was available.

For example, in my local region, BBC West, in the late 1970s, ran a show called Day Out. Two senior local news presenters went to various ostensibly dull-as-buggery locations between Tewkesbury and Taunton and told us why they rocked. And no matter how humdrum a place as Weston-super-Mare might have looked, these programmes usually did rock; the leftfield (NOT eccentric), the oddball and the characterful were always to the fore, as in Alec Clifton-Taylor's films and Nikolaus Pevsner's and Tom Nairn's architectural taxonomies. It worked. And if, three years ago, you had asked me if a dry-stone waller at Ribblehead or an eel-trapper at Dungeness would have made good TV I'd have laughed in your face - but, blimey, CountryFile makes it work.

This transfiguring of the prosaic inspires the documentary spirit that informed Flaherty, Watson, the very early 40 Minutes, the spirit that the vile Nationwide traduced, that was demeaned by Esther's toothless-old-biddy TV of Cyril's odd bloody sodding bastard odes and 'sausage'-dogs. This is not just about The One Show - either the insufferably boring person who is 'just like you' or the insufferably eccentric trombone impersonator. No, this spirit of British TV concenrs itself with the marginal, derelict mental hospitals, maniacally odd architecture, former FA Cup winners now revelling in the joys of shrimp farming, the daily lives of great composers (Holst, for example, led an exemplary life in Cheltenham until his death). Fyfe Robertson is CountryFile's guardian angel right now.

CountryFile is currently staffed by an expert crew, who seem to be tuned into this thinking. Their expertise, sadly, is probably over-amped by the frantically urban-centric nature of British culture (all right, I admit, London-centric) which makes incongruously lovely manna of any coverage of something outside the orbit of an N1 conversation by the 30somethings that increasingly run our cultural diet. But let's not diminish them; give these people their head.

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