It’s a glorious summer’s day and everything in John Craven’s Oxfordshire garden appears lovely. But the Countryfile presenter, about to celebrate his 25th anniversary on the show, is consumed by darker thoughts in stark contrast to the idyllic surroundings.
“Food security is incredibly important now,” reasons the 73-year-old presenter when asked about the problems facing the countryside today. “We produce about 60 per cent of our own food; we need to produce much more because the Asian countries, India and China especially, are wanting our kind of food now, particularly wheat and all the basics. And whoever has the most money will get what they want.”
Nor do his worries stop there.
“We need a proper long-term, non-political plan to deal with flooding,” he argues. “I personally believe that climate change is happening and we have to plan for that. We need a big overview about how we’re going to cope with this huge problem, because we are going to get a lot more heavy rain in sudden downpours and flooding.”
Craven, it should be pointed out, remains the same polite, slightly earnest chap who presented his eponymous Newsround from 1972 to 1989 for more than 3,000 episodes (he claims to have only missed one edition, when his eldest daughter was born). Married to wife Marilyn, and with two daughters and five grandchildren all living locally, he appears happy with his lot.
But the reality of presenting Countryfile and pondering rural matters for quarter of a century has left him with few illusions about the countryside. Farmers carry on for too long (he doesn’t note the irony of his own extended tenure on TV and in fact has just signed a new 18-month contract), there’s a shortage of youngsters entering the business and not enough affordable housing for those who do.
“In the time that I’ve been doing Countryfile there’s been ‘mad cow disease’, listeria, salmonella, bovine TB, foot-and-mouth obviously and Schmallenberg virus, which is pretty horrible. I’ve been a bit of a bad omen!”
One half expects the local songbirds to fall silent in sympathy.
“Supermarkets have changed their ways a lot,” he offers on a more positive note. “I think they’ve realised their responsibilities to farmers. They’re paying a decent price for milk now, for instance.” There is a gloomy caveat, however: “It’s come a bit too late to save a lot of dairy farmers.”
No, despite appearances to the contrary, everything in the garden is far from rosy. And we haven’t even mentioned Elizabeth’s affair on The Archers.
John Raymond Craven was born in Leeds in 1940. Shortly afterwards, his father, Bill, who’d never previously left the country, shipped out to Singapore and was promptly taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to work on the Death Railway. For three years, John’s mother Marie had no idea if Bill was alive and when he did return, much weakened by the experience, he had to get “a sitting down job” in a factory.
John went to Leeds Modern, the same school Alan Bennett attended – “he was deputy head boy when I was in first year but our paths didn’t really cross”. Unlike the future Beyond the Fringe member, however, Craven was not considered sixth-form material and left school at 16 for a commercial apprenticeship at Yorkshire Copperworks.
He didn’t take to his new job, but writing for the company magazine, The Yorkshire Imperial, securing interviews
with Cliff Richard, Benny Hill and other showbiz types, gave him a taste for journalism. Moreover, an early brush with TV, as a contributor to a youthful God-slot programme, The Sunday Break, began his life-long fascination with the medium. He was released from his apprenticeship to become a junior reporter on the Harrogate Advertiser and via stints on The Yorkshire Post and BBC Newcastle arrived in 1970 on local news programme Points West in Bristol. Here, he begged an audition for a children’s current affairs programme, Search, and his successful interaction with “two children who’d been told to act difficult, but at the end of the day, actually were”, landed him the job.
Two years later, beginning with a six-week trial run and faced with much criticism for “invading the garden of childhood”, John Craven’s Newsround came into being.
“It started because there was an awkward little gap in the schedules on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” recalls its presenter. “It was never longer than eight minutes. I think it was successful because it was so short. Plus in those days it wasn’t worth getting out of your chair to switch over.”
It became an instant hit with both children and adults. Preceding the era of daytime TV as we now know it, Newsround’s scoops included the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the Hungerford massacre and, most famously, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
Craven’s star was on the rise. In time, he was offered the job of presenting Tomorrow’s World. “I was taken for a very nice lunch, for the first and only time,” but politely declined.
He remembers coming up with the title Newsround, but it was the then deputy head of children’s TV, Edward Barnes, who insisted on it being John Craven’s Newsround.
“I was very grateful,” smiles Craven, “because not many people have their name in the title of a programme. Although it was just incidental.” It wouldn’t have worked with his middle name: “Raymond Craven’s Newsround” doesn’t sound right. “True,” he laughs. “But that name was useful when I was a teenager. I used to be known as Johnny Ray in the 50s. I had Italian suits and a Tony Curtis haircut. I was a mod!”
Yet by the time he presented JCN, he was the very model of middle-class rectitude. Was that a fair image?
“Well, I hope I wasn’t too square, but I’m not a showbiz type,” he asserts. “Somebody told me at the start of my career, ‘Never go out of your comfort zone’, and I think that’s good advice.”
Yet he was a young man in the 60s. Had he not engaged with the counterculture, and experimented with pot and LSD, for instance?
“No, I never did, I’m afraid. I was a bit too old in the 1960s.”
His chance to let his hair down came instead with Multi-Coloured Swap Shop in 1976.
“I was engaged on Swap Shop to be the grit in the middle because the bosses thought three hours of just pop groups and cartoons and quizzes was a bit too candyfloss. For ten years I provided that grit, but we also had a lot of fun.”
Craven’s ubiquity on children’s TV in the 70s and 80s has left the bittersweet legacy that everyone remembers him. “When I met David Cameron, he came straight up to me and said, ‘I grew up on you.’ I thought, Really? Am I that old? But I also remember being on a plane and a hostess approached me and said, ‘I’d just like to thank you for being part of my childhood.’ ”
Rural concerns aside, Craven is delighted with what Countryfile has achieved during his tenure. He enjoys its impartiality and ability to cover emotive issues such as hunting without bias, balancing the different demands of its rural and urban audience.
“There was an idea that you weren’t a true country person unless you believed in hunting,” he says, recalling the coverage of the Countryside Alliance campaign. “I don’t believe that to be true. I think there are a lot of country people who don’t agree with hunting.
“I would never have believed when I started that eventually the programme would become the most popular current affairs programme on television,” he adds with discernible pride. “But it is – and with an enormous audience.”
The move to Sunday evening, which led to that boost in ratings (it now regularly attracts up to seven million), was famously far from smooth, however, involving as it did the axing of several presenters, among them Miriam O’Reilly, who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination.
“It got very unpleasant and for the team it was an unhappy time,” he winces. “I didn’t get involved because I’m not management, I’m just a hired hand. When you’re in the front line as a presenter, the easiest thing for a new manager to do when they come in is get rid of you and bring in a new face and that’s always been the case. I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve survived about 12 different series producers on Countryfile.”
Was O’Reilly right to sue the BBC?
“Yes, if she felt that she’d been badly treated then of course she was right to take them on.”
As clouds threaten to take away the best light for RT’s photographer, I ask Craven if he now sees himself as rural or urban. “I think of myself as very much a country person,” he answers without hesitation. “Although I know I’ll never be fully accepted. But I like to think, as we try to prove on the show, that there’s room for everyone in the countryside.”
Countryfile: John Craven’s 25th Anniversary is on tonight at 7:20pm on BBC1