John Craven has been at the helm of beloved nature show Countryfile for almost 30 years. As the programme celebrates its three decades on air, Craven looks back over the years and shares the secret to its lasting success…
Has your attitude to the countryside and country matters changed over the years?
When I joined Countryfile in 1989 I was already well briefed on many environmental and wildlife issues because of my years on Newsround, but I knew little about farming and food production and the social problems facing the countryside. Deprivation, isolation, affordable housing for low-paid workers, the loss of local shops, pubs and doctors’ surgeries – all were far removed from the rosy perception of country life. I found myself becoming increasingly protective of our rural ways. Though I was raised in the suburbs I have long thought of myself as a country person and count myself lucky to live in the best, most diverse countryside on Earth.
What pleases you and what concerns you about our stewardship of the countryside?
The growing number of people – urban and rural – who join conservation and environmental groups because they are passionate about safeguarding the land they love. Without their commitment it would be poorer in every way and under greater threat. What concerns me is the contempt shown by those who treat the countryside as a dumping ground.
What impact do you think Brexit will have on the British countryside?
Despite relying on EU subsidies to survive, many farmers voted for Brexit because they wanted to be free from Brussels bureaucracy – but will they be better off? Many aspects of nature conservation have certainly benefited from EU laws, but will they be as effective once they are absorbed into British law? So many intriguing question marks hang over the countryside, as they do with the nation as a whole, and the next few months will hopefully provide answers.
Why do you think Countryfile is so popular?
Simple – the time slot. After what’s probably been a busy weekend, it’s the ideal time to relax and spend a vicarious hour in the countryside. There will be sights to lift your heart and moments to cause you concern, but there will be no swearing, no questionable taste and no sex – unless it involves animals at a distance.
When we transmitted on Sunday mornings we had an unexpected fan club among students slowly coming round after lively Saturday nights. We provided a gentle awakening, and one classic video on YouTube showed half-a-dozen of them sprawled bleary-eyed around their digs with me on the television chatting away in some idyllic setting.
Has the programme shaped public opinion?
It must have done, even though the programme never takes sides. We have always reported all aspects of a story and let viewers make up their minds from the evidence we show them.
For example, during the long years of debate over fox hunting we gave equal time to the pros and antis, much to the annoyance of die-hard supporters of field sports who thought a countryside programme should be totally committed to their cause. The fact that for 52 weeks of the year we turn the spotlight on rural Britain surely has some impact, some positive trickle-down effect. Urban viewers will be wiser and country dwellers will, I hope, feel we represent them.
You’re trusted as a broadcaster in the same way that David Attenborough is. Do you think that’s true?
That’s impossible for me to say. Throughout my career I’ve always tried to get to the truth and present it in an uncompromising, easily understandable way. If people trust me, I feel honoured. As an old colleague used to say: “Honest John tells it to you straight!”
If you could do one thing for the countryside what would it be?
I think I’m doing it already – by spreading the word about its vital place in the fabric of our nation on Britain’s most popular factual TV show. My hope is that we’re helping to build a passion for protecting our countryside that will last for generations.
You’re 77 now – any thoughts on how long you might carry on?
Not really. As long as I can walk up hills, think and speak clearly and still look forward to my days out on location I would love to keep on Countryfiling. But who knows?
Countryfile airs on BBC1 at Sundays at 7pm