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Firle Journal: British Pastoral: A BBC Show on Rural Life Draws Millions

If there is anything raunchy about “Countryfile,” it is perhaps best described as pastoral porn: shots of bare, undulating hills and deep, grassy valleys.

“Almost more than in any other country I can think of, we Brits have this kind of proprietorial attitude to the countryside,” said Mr. Craven, a veteran of “Countryfile,” during a break from filming.

“We don’t own it — or most of us don’t own it — but we behave as if we do,” he added.

Mr. Craven himself is an unlikely figure to represent one of Britain’s top-rated shows. He is 76 and began his career broadcasting in black and white. In 1989 he joined “Countryfile” after 17 years of “John Craven’s Newsround,” a short news broadcast for children, which makes him instantly recognizable to generations of Britons.


A gardener at work at Charleston House. With its focus on everything rural, from scything to cycling, “Countryfile” is regularly the most viewed factual broadcast in Britain. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The other hosts for “Countryfile,” most of them in their 30s, grew up watching him, he says, adding that he has disproved the showbiz injunction to avoid working with children and animals.

“I’ve done that all my life,” he said, adding that he had no plans to retire.

Like many, Mr. Craven was surprised by the success of a show once aimed primarily at farmers. In 2009, schedulers gambled by moving it from a Sunday pre-lunch backwater slot to prime time early evening.

Countryfile BBC Video by Mike Caine

The day after the switch, Mr. Craven recalls, “the controller phoned me up at about 11 o’clock on Monday morning and said, ‘You are not going to believe this, John, we got seven million.’ Everybody was jumping up and down in the office. And it’s been like that ever since.”

On one week in February it was viewed by 7.67 million people, compared with 7.25 million for the best rating achieved by the popular soap opera “EastEnders” and 5.29 million for the 6 o’clock news on BBC.

Shows about the natural world, like “Planet Earth,” can be blockbusters here, and affection for rural life is reflected in the bucolic setting of Britain’s longest-running radio soap opera, “The Archers.”

The audience for “Countryfile” splits roughly 50-50 between urban and rural viewers, and includes (Mr. Craven has been assured) members of Britain’s royal family.

“Countryfile” prides itself on both quality filmmaking and its tackling of difficult aspects of rural life, like dementia and domestic abuse, and it has its own distinct style and pace.


Mr. Craven, left, with a local artist during filming. Each episode is filmed about two weeks ahead of broadcast. Producers say the show is made at a fraction of the cost of prime-time competitors. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“A lot of television may be made with ratings in mind,” said Nick Small, one of the show’s directors. “That may be where they are getting it wrong, as far as I am concerned.”

The show’s viewers rarely experience an adrenaline rush as they settle into their Sunday night on the sofa. “It’s slow, it’s comfortable,” Mr. Small said. “You never have somebody saying, ‘Will John get out of this situation alive?’”

Adam Henson BBC Countryfile Cotswold Sheep Stratford William Shakespeare Birthday Video by MaxMediaAsia

The shoot I visited in February illustrated the diverse topics covered by the show. Mr. Craven was at Charleston House here in Firle, which became the country home of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

The farmhouse, which is decorated with their work, offered an escape from London and from military service for Mr. Grant, who was a conscientious objector during World War I.

Filming for each episode takes place about two weeks ahead of broadcast, and producers say, coyly, that the show is made at a fraction of the cost of other prime-time competitors.

But exposure inevitably brings criticism. In 2015 The Daily Mail, a midmarket tabloid, published an article by the writer Christopher Booker claiming that “Countryfile” “prettifies, sentimentalizes and sanitizes” country life while “lining up with the ‘environmentalists’ and animal rights campaigners who run our powerful green lobby groups.”

By contrast, The Daily Express, another tabloid, frequently highlights occasions when viewers are upset by images of dead animals or anything else vaguely contentious. When a drawing, made recently by one host, Ellie Harrison, accidentally bore a slight resemblance to a phallus, the Express headline read: “Fans in Turmoil as Ellie Harrison Draws ‘Penis’ on Family Show.”


The interior of Charleston House in Firle, England, which became the country home of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Mr. Booker’s claims were rejected by the “Countryfile” executive editor, Bill Lyons. However, he does not want to be drawn into another big dispute that erupted when the show moved to prime time — which was before he took up his current position.

In 2011 a tribunal decided that the BBC discriminated against one female host, Miriam O’Reilly, on the basis of her age, when it dropped her from the show.

Mr. Lyons takes pride in the fact that at a time when television is increasingly viewed on demand, “Countryfile” is a fixture in national life, drawing a wide and diverse viewership. Students confess on Twitter to having “this guilty habit of watching ‘Countryfile,’” Mr. Lyons said.

Its success in Britain established, “Countryfile” is now more easily available to viewers in America as part of a subscription TV service called BritBox, a collaboration between the BBC and its commercial competitor, ITV.

Mr. Lyons sees it, however, as a quintessentially British show. “I know North America quite well, and its landscape is wonderful, but it doesn’t half go on for a long time — particularly when you are driving through the Midwest or Texas,” he said, using a British turn of phrase that means “it goes on and on.”

He added, “Whereas in Britain it changes perceptibly sometimes every few hundred yards, certainly every couple of miles.”

Britons, he added, are not good at overt displays of patriotism, “but what we do well is take quiet pride in the things that make Britain British, and the landscape is one of those things.”

Despite his many years as a TV frontman, or perhaps because of them, Mr. Craven agrees. “I always say that it’s the countryside that is the star of the show,” he said.

“Heaven forfend,” he added, “if you are not really interested in what I’m saying, there’s always a beautiful view behind me.”

Source: NYT > World

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