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TV review: Countryfile and Tonight: Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The drama that shocked Britain

02 February 2024

BBC Studios/Pete Dadds

Jo Crowley, one of the presenters of Countryfile (BBC1, Sundays)

Jo Crowley, one of the presenters of Countryfile (BBC1, Sundays)

WHO cares about UK farming? Isn’t it merely a minor sideshow in our national economy, employing a fraction of its former workforce, and of concern merely to middle-class retirees wanting a picturesque backdrop to their dog-walking, or to agribusinesses ruthlessly cutting costs and driving up profits?

By no means! Growing political world instability, leading to efforts to push towards food self-sufficiency; anxiety about what we ought to be eating and what carbon footprint it carries; and, above all, climate change, affecting what can be produced and where — all these generate far more attention than we have seen for decades.

And, in Countryfile (BBC1), the BBC, in its Sunday-evening secular replacement for evensong, has the edge over our bishops and the General Synod, apparently eager only to promote urban megachurches and dismissive of that immemorial bedrock of the C of E the village parish. Occasionally, this weekly magazine implies that most agriculture is carried out by traditional family farms, supporting a revival in ancient handicrafts — but, at its best, it confronts serious issues, and seeks balance and realism in reporting harsh economic realities in a fast-changing world.

One strand in Sunday’s edition was close to home: global warming brings midges that spread the bluetongue virus among sheep and cattle — cases among our Kent farms near by have led to slaughter, and the imposition of temporary control zones, stopping all movement of animals to market, and potentially destroying, for example, the bloodlines of a pedigree Sussex herd nurtured since 1942. Farmers facing ruin sought to persuade viewers that this was much more than economic or financial disaster: theirs is a lifetime’s commitment, a hard calling that builds up identity and benefit far beyond the farm’s borders.

Elsewhere, we saw a more positive story: a small-scale revival of the Somerset Levels’ willow-farming is creating a niche market. But here, too, if water levels continue to rise too much, the cultivation will become impossible. The products relate to us: there is a burgeoning call for handwoven willow eco-coffins, so snug and beautiful that I’m considering getting one to settle down in, on winter nights, to get used to the idea.

Religion reared its head: the Church of England’s rural retreat leaves the field open to, for example, in Herefordshire, a ritual unknown to Common Worship: a flourishing wassail, with apple orchards libated and urged to produce a good crop. Whether this is pagan survival or revival is unclear, but it provides an opportunity for that central British winter pastime of cider-fuelled, torchlit morris dancing.

Should ITV still be milking its recent spectacular success? In Tonight: Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The drama that shocked Britain (ITV1, Thursday of last week) (TV, 12 January), some new insights were added. Producers and actors confirmed how seriously they had approached the task — proof that drama is more effective than documentary in bringing about radical change. Showing, not telling, could make us rethink how we set out to evangelise.

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