It’s a week of new beginnings for Countryfile. On Sunday night there’s a special filmed welcome for the dawn of another spring, and also a fond farewell to Ellie Harrison (and her maternity poncho) who’s off to await delivery of her own new arrival. Then on Monday a new sibling joins the Countryfile family – a daytime series offering even more of what the show’s six million audience craves: the British countryside in all its glory.
“Really, the audience don’t seem to be able to get enough, so we’re having to give them more, it’s as simple as that,” says Bill Lyons, the man who has piloted the series to its extraordinary success.
John Craven will feature in the diaries to provide a sense of continuity, but there are new faces as well, including BBC Look North weather presenter Keeley Donovan (below) and radio presenter Margherita Taylor.
Lyons says the new week-long series will be anchored from the New Forest but will spread its reporting wings across the country. “It’s great opportunity over five days to actually share something of the changing of the seasons in rather more depth and breadth than we are usually able to do in a one-hour programme on Sunday night.”
And could it become a regular fixture in the TV schedules? Lyons hopes so. “I would love to think that it would extend all year round because it’s a lovely offering for the audience.”
Lyons has faced some flak from that audience; recent films on domestic violence and on game keeping drew criticism from those tuning in for an affirming fix of the bucolic. He might get some more in coming weeks when the Euro referendum battleground shifts to Sunday nights at 7pm as David Cameron and Boris Johnson take it in turns to argue whether our countryside is best protected by either an in or an out vote.
Given the size and makeup of the Countryfile constituency it’s easy to see why these two political heavyweights would want to pitch directly to it.
Lyons doesn’t disagree with one commentator’s view that Countryfile is the most political programme on TV.
“Do I agree that it’s political? Yes, I do, but it’s notbecause we set out to be political but because the territory we occupy, the countryside itself, can’t help but have political heft to it.
“If you go back before the dissolution of the monasteries and right the way through the enclosure acts of the 18th 19th centuries, right the way through to the ‘right to roam’ in the 20th century and all that. Territory, countryside, property, is all to do with politics. And it’s not simply a dry political thing, it’s because people feel passionately about their countryside. Politics combined with passion equals interesting stories, interesting journalism – that’s what we try to do.”
Lyons is also convinced of the reasons for his show’s popularity. Yes, it’s to do with an innate love of the countryside – a relationship that many of us are perhaps estranged from. But also what the programme represents.
“For me what underpins its success is the fact that this is a public service programme. Its ethos is public service. If you had to invent Countryfile now for the commercial market it would look nothing like what we do now and it wouldn’t be successful. It is the product of its history with the BBC and of its public service values. And the audience loves it for that. That’s important. “