Over the past 28 years Countryfile has offered viewers a winning mix of fearless reporting on rural affairs and stunning shots of this country’s bucolic landscapes
“The journalism within Countryfile is the heartbeat of the programme,” said executive editor Bill Lyons, who was talking to a full house at the Everyman Cinema for an RTS Bristol Centre event celebrating the long-running BBC One magazine programme.
Over the years, Countryfile has investigated the countryside protest marches, foot and mouth disease, and rural domestic violence. “We don’t shy away from the grittiness of the countryside,” said Joanna Brame, who produces the series for BBC Bristol.
Equally, Lyons was “very proud of the way we rightly celebrate the beauty of the amazing landscape that we’re blessed with in this country” in Countryfile.
Presenter John Craven, who joined the programme in 1989, added: “It’s a lovely way to relax at the end of a weekend to watch a programme like Countryfile, and we do show our countryside at its best – we have some glorious shots. But a show like ours has to be more than that – it has to have the reality of life in the countryside.”
Countryfile made its TV debut in July 1988 in a half-hour Sunday morning slot on BBC One. In 2003 it gained an extra half-hour of airtime and six years later, at the behest of then Controller of BBC One Jay Hunt, was promoted to a Sunday evening primetime position.
RTS Bristol Chair Lynn Barlow, who quizzed the panel at the event, pointed out that the programme’s ratings – it peaked at 9.6 million earlier this year – put it “almost in Bake Off territory – it is quite extraordinary for a long-running show”.
“It is a juggernaut of a show,” agreed Lyons, “[Being on air] 52 weeks a year means there’s no room for mistakes or second thoughts. Whatever happens you have to film, otherwise the show won’t be on air three weeks later.”
It takes a “massive team” – including 13 directors, six producers and nine researchers – to make Countryfile, revealed Brame. “At any one time we have a minimum of six programmes at some point of the production process,” she added.
Craven recalled the early days of the programme. “A lot of people who work in the countryside wondered what had hit them. Up until then, there hadn’t really been a programme that questioned the way that [farming] operates,” he said.
“The field sports community were also surprised when Countryfile started to question some of the ways they carry out their business.”
Craven had recently left long-running BBC children’s news programme, Newsround, which practised “a very different kind of journalism”. Yet, he added, “what we did take from Newsround was the importance of simplifying things without being simplistic. [We wanted] to let urban people know what was happening in the countryside, that it wasn’t all roses around the door.”
The programme’s audience is split almost equally between town and country – 49% of viewers are urban and 51% rural. “We have to appeal to both,” said Lyons. “The hardest battle is to have them all recognise that everybody’s point of view is valid. The countryside, helpfully from our point of view sometimes, can be quite a fractious place – it’s certainly not a rural idyll.”
“We don’t assume too much previous knowledge. We have to be careful not to upset our rural audience by talking down to them, while at the same time explaining to our urban audience how the countryside works – its quite a difficult juggling act,” said Craven.
The One Show’s Anita Rani, who joined Countryfile last year, is the newest member of the presenting team. “As someone who lives in Hackney in London and grew up in Bradford, I am experiencing the countryside for the 50% of our audience who live in urban environments. I am their eyes and ears,” she said.
Rani, who was named Best On Screen Talent at the RTS West of England Awards in March, maintained that Countryfile’s stories are relevant for both rural and urban audiences: “Take milk. We know that the price of milk is next to nothing and that lots of farmers are suffering horrendously, but ask people in the city whether they would pay more for their milk and I’m sure [most] would say no. Opening people’s eyes to how their lives are so entwined and connected with what’s going on in rural Britain is really interesting.”
Summing up the programme’s success, Craven said: “It’s [part of] a perfect BBC One Sunday evening – you’ve got Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow, a drama, the news and bedtime. Countryfile is a perfect format and long may it continue.”
The RTS Bristol Centre event, “Countryfile: Anatomy of a Hit”, was held at the Everyman Cinema, Bristol, on 28 September.
All photos by Jon Craig.