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Life on the farm

23 October 2015


IT HAS been our exclusive preserve for so long that perhaps a frisson of jealousy is allowable as we watch BBC2’s Harvest 2015 (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of last week). Did not the Church invent the concept of harvest festival, reminding an essentially urban populace that our food is actually grown or raised somewhere, by somebody, instead of arriving from nowhere, perfect and cellophane-wrapped, on our supermarket shelves?

But this glossy examination of contemporary farming, looking north, west, and east, raises, for churchpeople, slightly awkward considerations. Here is no son of the soil ploughing behind his team of heavy horses. What the BBC shows us is UK farming as it really is: a largely industrial business, with innovative managers investing in huge machines, assessing the success of different strains, willing to switch crops and livestock to gain some tiny edge in a harsh economic climate. It makes what most of us preach about seem antiquated and sentimental.

Of course, the farmers have the strongest link to their land and their calling. It is far more than just a business; but if it is to continue, it has to be one. And the relationship between God, nature, and human skill is more dramatic than we often allow for.

Listening to the succession of natural problems that, for example, the Perthshire grain-farmers had to contend with last year, it seemed as though divine providence, rather then the benign partnership we peddle to our congregations, plays some kind of sadistic game, keeping humanity on tip-toe. Then out comes the sun, and, despite everything, all can safely be gathered in. But, cruellest of all, a really good harvest means a glut, and the prices tumble.

These programmes are on to something serious and worth while; how sad that they are conceived in so relentlessly populist a manner.

A long title can indicate that the programmers cannot make up their minds what the show is mainly about. The three-part documentary The Celts: Blood, iron and sacrifice with Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver (BBC2, Mondays) is an example, grimly, to cherish. This is a shame, because the subject matter is fascinating.

Were the barbarians who lived beyond the margins of the Greek and Roman classical world merely homicidal savages? Their metalwork, as evidenced by the successive Hallstatt and La Tène styles, is of spectacular technical skill and beauty. Only complex and stable societies could possibly create such a tradition. They chose not to develop writing; so what we know about them is written by their enemies.

Roberts and Oliver have as yet not tackled the crucial issue, whether it is even right to treat them as a single people or culture, extending from Spain to central Europe. Or perhaps they were the norm, and the Greeks and Romans were the odd men out?

The Kennedys (BBC1 Fridays) is a sitcom about the delights of life in 1970s Stevenage, its one joke the awe at experiencing for the first time cultural phenomena (lasagne, Swedish lesbians) that are now entirely commonplace. It is absurd farce, but played with such conviction as to disarm me, at least.

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