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Ovine family life

19 February 2016

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WHO would have expected, in today’s climate, to hear young children being encouraged on TV to explain the minutiae of sexual congress? Clearly, different rules apply in the high Pennines and when you are talking about sheep. Addicted To Sheep (BBC4, Monday of last week) was a deceptively simple account of a year in the life of the Hutchinson family’s farm, and one of the striking elements was the involvement of the three children in their parents’ work.

They watched as their mother dragged a dead lamb from the womb of a sheep, and they explained to the director that the corpse was being tied to the back of a healthy spare so that the mother would not reject it. This is their everyday life.

At their school, after singing “There is a green hill far away,” the teacher interviewed the class, asking how many of them were farmers’ children. The answer was: all of them. And all but two wanted to become farmers themselves.

We were not, alas, seeing anything typical, we were assured. The Raby Estate stands out in contrast to most landowners: it still offers tenancies to small farmers, instead of amalgamating into a couple of megafarms and using the farmhouses as holiday lets; and it still maintains a small school.

Everyone had a quad bike, a computer, and a mobile phone; and yet, at heart, it appeared an immemorial life, hard and unforgiving: Swaledales (the local sheep) are “the worst addiction in the world”. But it was clear that the family loved it, and they derived immense satisfaction from seeking to improve their small flock as well as they could — an ambition that paid off at the local show, where they swept the board, winning cups in ten categories.

Braining, with a lump of stone, a Pennine sheep that had been set on by yobbos’ dogs, was how Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood kicked off the second series of Happy Valley (BBC1, Tuesday of last week). The brand seems to be in excellent health, gleefully exposing the reality behind the Last of the Summer Wine fantasy.

Halifax is a no-hope gulch, peopled with vicious drug addicts, murderers, and adulterers. I find an uncomfortable mixture in the drama: the characters and their interactions are spot-on — gritty, failing, yet never fully defeated. But the plots are renaissance tragedies in their unforgiving violence.

Already we have three crazed zombies out for revenge on half the town, and, ere long, the screen will be filled with blood, undermining the realism of the project.

The X-Files (Channel 5, Monday of last week) has returned. As TV sci-fi hokum goes, this was always the classiest; and, in this new series, it is good to see that the sparky Fox Mulder-Dana Scully relationship still manages to outweigh the nonsense of the plots.

There is the overturning of gender stereotypes: Mulder is the soft, gullible one, while Scully is the hard-nosed sceptic. It can make some claim to a serious, even theological underlying, concept: Mulder desperately wants to believe, while Scully is always finding a reason not to.

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