Caught by the River

Twenty Years Of 'Countryfile'

Ben Myers | 4th August 2008

by Ben Myers

Television has changed a lot in twenty years. Almost beyond recognition in fact – and not always for the better. Yet there remains a beacon of regularity and dependability amongst the shifting schedules and changing formats: Countryfile.

Last week was manna from heaven for Countryfileophiles such as myself, as the programme celebrated two decades of our beloved correspondents striding purposefully through dales in green Wellington boots or shouting nosily over the thrum of a combine harvester. As a fan of the programme I have but one major observation: Countryfile’s format should never be messed with. Just don’t touch it – it’s the only perfect show on television.

Carving a lone path between the deathly dull, starched-white morning worship programmes and the lurid banality of T4’s youth TV, Countryfile is the sole ‘third way’ for Sunday morning television. It is the programme that is unafraid to tackle the big issues – and it doesn’t mind getting sprayed in cow shit along the way.

Talking the longview, the two decades of Countryfile’s existence has presented nothing less than a series of disastrous developments within agriculture: from the burgeoning BSE crisis that began in 1989 and taking in E coli, salmonella in eggs and onto foot-and-mouth disease the contentious hunting ban, the Sea Empress crude oil mishap in Pembrokeshire, the virulent return of BSE/CJD, the rise of bovine TB and the twin threats of blue tongue and H5N1 bird flu. And that’s without mentioning major incidents in more recent times such as the vast flooding of lowlands farms.

Yet through it all, Countryfile remains strangely uplifting. It is the perfect Sunday morning viewing for when you’re feeling fragile or craving some fresh air and fauna. A large part of this is surely down to the balance between seriousness and irreverence, weighty issues and, say, a feature on cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire. And it’s all delivered with the bemused stoicism that is expected of BBC reporters.

Countryfile is also an emotional rollercoaster. One minute you have a teary farmer surveying a burning pyre of beef, the next you have Ben Fogle whimpering under a blanket after catching pneumonia following a tin bath race in an Isle of Man harbour. In fact, in my household “Fogle’s in the tin bath” has come to symbolise something similar to that of Fonzie jumping the shark. Your night out just peaked? The new Batman film is overlong? The hot weather has passed? “Fogle is in the tin bath”.

Against my better judgment I can’t help but like the puppy-dog like enthusiasm and minor royal looks of Fogle, who works well alongside co-presenters such as Michaela “release the owls” Strachan, and the under-rated Miriam O’Reilly and viewer-turned presenter Adam Henson.

But there at the centre of it all is the daddy, John Craven. Utterly dependable, unflappable in his red anorak even in a gale in the Cairngorms and highly lampoonable, to people of my generation – and those either side – Craven is the man you can trust. Even when he’s surrounded by a pile of hooves or attempting to translate the irate ramblings of a Cornish farmer, you sense that everything is going to be alright. Because Craven is the comfort viewing of weekend television, the fry-up and the ice-cold can of Irn-Bru to your hungover sad-self.

Long before your Coast’s and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, Countryfile was gently celebrating Britain’s diverse rural life. Now after twenty years of weekly broadcasts, it remains a rare gem, a niche show that has somehow transcended its genre. It is no longer simply a farmer programme for farmers, it is essential viewing for anyone who appreciates the longest weather report of the week or enjoys seeing uppity anglers and canoeists coming to blows over water rights on the River Swale.

And thankfully it has yet to have its own metaphorical Fogle in the tin bath moment. Long may it reign. And rain.