The former Newsround presenter celebrates 25 years with Countryfile this week…
Your first Countryfile was back in 1989, a quarter of a century ago! Does it feel like it?
“It does feel quite a long time actually! An awful lot of things have happened in those 25 years. I went to Countryfile almost immediately after leaving Newsround and I’d done that for 17 years. Before that I’d done Swap Shop on Saturday mornings for 10 years – I’ve not been very ambitious, you see!”
Do you remember your first programme?
“Yes, it was on Sunday mornings in those days and it was on for half an hour. It was a much more serious programme than today’s, which has a wider brief, it was more farming and big issues. The very first film I made was about organic farming, which was very new then, I was asking if it had a future. It was a huge contrast for me, after all those years on Newsround in a nice warm studio, and there were no autocues so I had to learn all my lines. Suddenly I was going out in the fields in the middle of nowhere, and it was raining, if I remember! But it was what I was looking for after I left Newsround, something totally different, and I found it in Countryfile. It really sparked off what we call ‘welly telly’. There are many programmes about the countryside on TV now whereas in the early days, we were new.”
Have you always been interested in the countryside?
“Oh yes, I was born on the edge of the suburbs of Leeds so as children we were out in the Dales. In those days people didn’t worry about young children going out on their bikes, so me and my pals used to pedal out to Wharfedale. That was where I first got my real taste for the countryside and I’ve had it ever since. It’s got greater and greater, that affection.”
What have you enjoyed most about presenting Countryfile?
“I think it’s been having this tremendously privileged position of being allowed to go out into the countryside every week and show our viewers just what a fantastic place it is. I think the British countryside is the greatest place on Earth and we’re allowed to go where the public aren’t, we go to signs that say no entry, with permission, of course, and show people what we’ve found. It’s a fantastic opportunity to showcase the countryside and I think that’s what our viewers enjoy about it. We explore serious issues but we also have a great time. We go to a different location each week, we discover what life is like there, we meet some fascinating people and we see some beautiful scenery. I always say if you’re not particularly interested in what I might be saying at that moment, there’s always a beautiful scene behind me!”
What’s your favourite part of the country?
“That’s hard to say because it’s all absolutely beautiful, but I’m from Yorkshire so the Dales are very important to me. Just recently I discovered a Dale I’d never heard of. We were filming in Crummackdale, a tiny little dale near the Lancashire border, where there’s a most beautiful feature – some stones that look as though they’re modern art. You wonder how on earth one can stay on top of the other because they’re so delicately poised, but it’s all done by nature. There’s always something new to discover on this show.”
Why have you stayed with Countryfile so long?
“Because it’s so varied and I love it. We’ve always had a fantastic production team, there’s always been a really friendly atmosphere in the office and I’m privileged to do a show that’s so respected and loved by many people. It’s the most popular factual programme on television; in the wintertime we have eight million viewers. It’s staggering. It just shows how much British people love the countryside.”
What have been your highlights?
“One of the things I did on the programme was help reintroduce red kites to Britain. I went to Spain to collect the very first that were released in the early ’90s into the countryside in Buckinghamshire and now there are thousands of red kites all over the country. It’s been a huge success, that conservation project.
“Also I think when Prince Charles guest-edited the programme. I’m guest editing the programme this week and he’s been the only previous guest editor so I’m in pretty good footsteps. He really got into the job and took it very seriously. We went to Highgrove to see his farm and he was very cheery and very welcoming. He was a pioneer of organic farming, he was very into it and still is. He laid out issues that he wanted us to look at and we did. He wanted us to look at the plight of hill farmers and the quality of school food, issues close to his heart.”
Are the Royals fans of Countryfile?
“I asked Prince Charles if he watched the programme and he said he couldn’t possibly comment, but I think he does. I talked to the Duchess of Cornwall for a while and she said she enjoyed the programme. I think they’re very at home in the countryside.”
And the low points?
“Oh, the foot and mouth crisis, that was the worst, the most awful time for the British countryside. Although it was denied by the government, the countryside was virtually closed down and it did a huge amount of damage to rural tourism as well. A lot of farmers depended on the income from B&Bs run by the farmer’s wife to keep going and that all stopped, it was a terribly tragic time. Countryfile went live throughout the foot and mouth epidemic. Farmers really trust us, so we gave them the very latest information.
“I went to that awful place just outside Carlisle where half a million livestock were buried. I’ve been back since and there’s been an amazing transformation. It’s called the Watchtree Nature Reserve now and there’s a strange atmosphere there, an atmosphere of beauty but there’s a foreboding there as well. It’s the biggest manmade nature reserve in Europe, a pointed reminder of that awful time yet that awfulness has now been replaced by beauty. That’s quite significant, I think – nature always finds a way back, with a bit of human help sometimes.”
What about funny moments?
“There have been lots! I’ve done things I never thought I’d do, like go on a zipwire at the Eden Project. I’ve been rescued from a lifeboat by an RAF rescue helicopter. Not really, it was a training exercise, but it was quite scary!”
Are you doing anything special on your 25th anniversary programme?
“I’m the guest editor so I’m deciding what the rest of my colleagues are going to be filming. As organics was the first film, I’m getting Tom Heap, who’s our investigations man, to find out what the situation is now, 25 years on. And I’m getting Ellie to look into the plight of endangered wildlife, following on from the red kites.”
Do you plan to carry on with Countryfile?
“Oh yes. I don’t do every programme as I used to, these days I do every other programme, which suits me fine, but I’ve just signed to do another long term on the programme so I look forward to that. I keep pinching myself that I’ve got such a lovely job and I’ve still got it after all these years!”
Any other plans?
“I’m doing one of the Antiques Roadshow programmes with Johnny Ball. We know each other well from our days on children’s TV, so that will be great fun.”
Countryfile is on Sunday July 20 at 7.20pm on BBC1.