Sunday, 1 August 2021
Farming's what counts
Just lately there's been a lot of media clamour about the Amazon Prime series Clarkson's Farm. The former Top Gear presenter has brought his unique, anarchic style to the running of a farm – his own, as it happens. He plays the rich but clueless landowner whose basic mistakes provide endless laughs for the cast of country characters he surrounds himself with. They include Kaleb, the farm contractor, Cheerful Charlie, the land agent, Ellen, the shepherd, Gerald, the dry-stone wall builder, and Clarkson's girlfriend Lisa.
It's a winning formula that has become a big hit with viewers. It also happens to be exactly the formula that worked so brilliantly for The Archers when it launched nationally in January, 1951. Strictly speaking Clarkson's Farm is a documentary while The Archers is a drama. But Clarkson's clearly making a drama out of his farming, 'hamming it up' as the clueless farmer and deploying his cast of characters for the best laughs.
What both shows have in common is real farming. Judging by the current TV schedules there's more popular interest in the subject than for decades. Clarkson's Farm is riding the crest of this new wave. But it was The Archers that created the genre. Britain's longest-running drama series began as the story of a farming dynasty – Dan and Doris, Phil and Christine, Peggy and Jack. It was this everyday story of farmers and farming that gave the show an incredible audience of 15 million in the 1950s, a figure most TV soaps could only dream of today.
It's fair to say that, in my time at least, not everyone on the production team was a fan of the farming stories. Some thought it was the human dramas that mattered most to listeners; the tales of love and loss, jealousy and betrayal, that are the daily currency of TV soaps. Don't get me wrong. I believe in these stories too, and The Archers often does them extraordinarily well. Like Alice Carter's battle with alcoholism, for example.
Even so I'm convinced that farming needs to be the beating heart of the show. Its stories should be interwoven through the daily and weekly dramas like a golden thread. And in my 30 years as a writer, they were. They didn't all have to be big stories as when Tom Archer trashed his uncle's GM crop or when Lynda's dog Scruff appeared to have set off the cattle disease that effectively put paid to the Ambridge mega-dairy, managed by the sinister Rob Titchener.
Sometimes it was enough to set an everyday conversation in a tractor cab or in the milking parlour. Or to dramatise a tea break in the harvest field. Or trail along behind the cows when they were brought in for milking on a sunny summer afternoon. These were reminders of a heritage, so often overlooked. The heritage of our farming. You don't have to go back many generations to arrive at a time when it was central to all our lives.
As a write this in late July I've listened to a week's episodes. Though the Ambridge harvest season is well underway, there's been little about it on the show. Of course you can't draw any meaningful conclusions from a single week's episodes. But now more than ever I'd hate to think the show was drifting away from its core values.
Farming's what made The Archers a brilliantly successful drama and a national institution. At a time when there's more media interest than ever, this pioneering show should be setting the standard. It could even be providing solutions to the world's most pressing problems – the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. More on this next time.
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