Underneath The Archers

By Graham Harvey

A powerful memoir by the environmental campaigner & former agricultural story editor of The Archers.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Our home on the land

Funny the places environmental writing can take you. For me it started with a series of whistle-blowing articles on the destructive impact of industrial farming, with its habit of ripping out hedges and flattening woodlands. These I exposed fortnightly in my column for the satirical magazine Private Eye. That was nearly 40 years ago. Today I'm working on a TikTok drama about a new generation of young activists campaigning for change in farming, still damaging nature with its chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

And in between? I wrote scripts and storylines for the country's longest-running drama, The Archers. Officially I was a kind of Environment Secretary for the fictional world of Ambridge, making sure the storylines and dialogue accurately reflected what was happening in the British countryside. But underneath it I was slipping in stories and ideas proposing a more climate-friendly way of growing our food. I liked to think of myself as a kind of undercover agent for nature imbedded in this much-loved programme.

I'm now setting out to tell the whole story in my new book, Underneath The Archers. It will relate:

how a boy from a Reading council estate came to be running the farms on Britain's best known drama series,
how I used drama on radio, in touring theatre and now on TikTok to campaign against the needless destruction of our wildlife and countryside,
my theory that it's not wild, remote places that contribute most to our well-being, but the working landscapes of hedges, fields and woodlands that we know so well in Britain.

But I can't publish my book without your help. It's with the crowd-funding publisher Unbound. To make the book a reality I need supporters to help me raise the launch costs. Please make a pledge and help me reach my target. And in doing so, join in my lifelong campaign to rescue nature on the two-thirds of our land that grows our food.

The Britain I grew up in was a land of small, family farms and working village communities. These were the communities that inspired The Archers. But by the time I started writing about farming, they were under attack from a new kind of agriculture, an industrial kind we'd never seen before. In the drive for efficiency, fields were enlarged and hedges torn out. Skilled farm workers were made redundant to be replaced by giant machines and the crop sprayer, ceaselessly pouring toxic chemicals on our food plants.

In my first book The Killing of the Countryside I wrote about this needless destruction of small farms and wildlife, much of it driven by EU farm subsidies. My book shocked the nation and won the Natural World prize for environmental writing, presented to me by David Attenborough, the year before he won it for his book Life On Earth. Despite the outcry, the destruction continued. Wildlife groups remained silent, concerned only with their nature reserves. It was a short-sighted view. What hope was there for nature if farmland – making up two-thirds of our country - became a sterile wasteland?

To stay within the BBC's rules on balance, my stories for The Archers had to be rather less shrill. But they were there all the same. I had organic farmers Pat and Tony Archer install a waste water treatment plant for their dairy, only this one took the form of a wonderful wetland habitat, soon to be teeming with wildlife. I got Adam Macy to plant flower-filled grasslands (called herbal leys), which quickly became havens for butterflies and bees. I then made sure young farmer Pip Archer and her soon-to-be lover Toby Fairbrother spent time among the waving blooms and seed-heads. A not-so-subtle reminder that a habitat restoring fertility to the soil might have the same effect on human beings!

In my 20 years running the Ambridge farms I seldom missed an opportunity to recreate in the studio what had become a vanishing idyll in the countryside. I'd set up picnic scenes in the hay field and coffee breaks in the lambing shed. In the harvest field I'd create scenes where everyone climbed out of their tractors and combines to share moments of mirth and banter, an echo of an earlier time when farming was not such a lonely job. I wanted to convey a sense that we were part of that timeless world of animals, nature and the great outdoors.

Beyond Ambridge I toured a one-woman stage play celebrating a wartime farmer and author who became famous for rejecting industrial farming and championing the small, family farm. George Henderson's book The Farming Ladder became the surprise best-seller of 1944. He showed that even on a small farm you could produce a lot of food and make good money if you took care of your soil. Which meant using nature's methods and not plastering your land with chemical fertilisers.

In wartime Britain thousands bought the book, many of them young service men and women who dreamt of a life on the land when peace came. Tragically the post-war Atlee government crushed those dreams by bringing in state subsidies to farmers, the policy that set rural Britain on its path to industrial agriculture. Today this form of farming is widely seen to have been a catastrophe for nature, human health and the planet. Henderson's soil-first methods are now being taken up by go-ahead young farmers across the country. They're calling it regenerative agriculture but it's pretty much the same thing.

Which brings me to TikTok and the drama I've recently set up. Called Cidershed Dreams, it's the story of student Jessica Sweet, the two men in her life, and her newly-discovered passion for farming particularly the regenerative kind. You'll find it on TikTok by searching for pasturepromise.tv.

This is much the same territory as Underneath The Archers. The book's not just a celebration of a much-loved radio drama. It's about our farming heritage, our village communities, and the countryside and wildlife they support. It's also about my own search for connection with the two worlds, one fictional, one real. Please make a pledge and help me get my book over the line. Thank you.


Graham Harvey  

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Valerie Langfield
 Valerie Langfield says:

All this rings so true! As a child, I remember that when my mother cooked cauliflower, she would soak it in salted water first - then any caterpillars would wriggle to the surface. When was the last time you saw a caterpillar in a cauliflower (try saying that when tipsy!)? - even the organic ones are clean these days. I do find that worrying. I'm so looking forward to this book - not just for the Archers material, but for the wider picture too.

posted 19th July 2021

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