Today we celebrate a birthday, not of a person but a programme.
Thirty years ago today, on July 24th, 1988, we welcomed a new arrival to our living rooms, delivered through our TV sets and in the shape of BBC rural affairs programme “Countryfile”.
Originally fronted by presenter Anne Brown, it was broadcast on Sunday mornings and lasted half-an-hour. It replaced the long-running BBC programme “Farming”, which had broadcast 1,576 episodes and was, as its name suggests, aimed squarely at Britain’s farming community.
In a broadly factual reporting style, “Farming” covered topics which impacted on agriculture in its various forms, from livestock to arable farming. It included analysis of political events affecting agriculture, new development in farm management, fluctuations in crop and livestock prices and various other specialist subjects.
One aspect of the weekly programme which pulled in a wider audience was its in-depth long-range weather forecast, covering the week ahead. It was designed to let farmers plan weather-dependent activities, but others also found it helpful. Over time, the programme began to include segments with a more general appeal to an audience interested in rural affairs, and producers noticed viewing figures begin to rise.
It led, in the summer of 1988, to the replacement of “Farming” with a new rural affairs programme, christened “Countryfile”. Its brief, again reflected in its name, was to focus on issues reflecting any aspect of country life, not just those if specific interest to farmers. Although the new programme had the same 30-minute timeslot as its predecessor, it covered a broader range of subjects in a more appealing ‘magazine’ format.
Growing viewing figures encouraged the ongoing and gradual change in style and in 1989 “Countryfile” got a new face, with John Craven taking over as main presenter. Since 1972 he had pioneered a BBC news programme aimed specifically at children and aired in the middle of the traditional children’s weekday teatime programming.
“Newsround” drew on all the BBC’s journalistic resources and presented news stories in a simplified form, while deliberately not ‘talking down’ to children. It became so closely associated with its presenter that it was renamed “John Craven’s Newsround”. But after 17 years and more than 3,000 episodes, Craven was looking for a fresh challenge. He was also in his late 40s and agreed with the BBC that Newsround needed a new presenter closer in age to its young audience.
“Countryfile” was a good fit for Craven, reflecting his own interest in countryside affairs, and again he would become synonymous with the programme over many years. He saw it expand to a full hour, able to cover more topics in greater depth and feature a growing cast of supporting presenters and reporters.
Despite its Sunday morning slot, it was soon attracting viewing figures to rival many ‘prime time’ programmes. City-based television producers realised, not before time, that a huge segment of their potential audience lived ‘out in the sticks’ and were deeply interested in countryside issues. In April 2009 the hour-long “Countryfile” was switched to its current Sunday early evening slot, where it continues to attract consistently strong viewing figures.
Over the years it has launched or boosted the careers of a string of presenters. Well-known names who have served on “Countryfile” include Claire Balding, Julia Bradbury, Michael Collie, Ben Fogle and Michaela Strachan. The current line-up of regular presenters includes Matt Baker, Helen Skelton, Ellie Harrison, Tom Heap, Anita Rani and working farmer Adam Henson, with John Craven still heading the presenting team.
It has also spawned a string of spin-off rural affairs TV programmes, including “Country Tracks”, “Secret Britain” and “Countryfile Diaries”, as well as a “Countryfile” magazine launched in 2007. A highlight of the “Countryfile” year is its annual photographic competition, which sees viewers send in their photographs on a particular theme, with the best ones chosen for the Countryfile Calendar. Sales of the popular calendar raise funds for the BBC Children in Need Appeal, with last year’s calendar alone raising more than £2.2 million.
One enduring feature which lives on since the days of “Farming” is the “Countryfile” weather forecast for the week ahead. The in-depth forecast is broadcast direct from the BBC’s weather studio in London and remains an essential part of the popular programme, which airs 52 weeks of the year.