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Carry on up the country: Why the UK’s beloved Countryfile has lasted the ages

© Pete Dadds/BBC StudiosJohn Craven presenting Countryfile.
John Craven presenting Countryfile.

Sundays just wouldn’t be the same without our weekly dose of Countryfile, BBC’s popular rural affairs programme.

From foot-and-mouth and BSE to Morris dancing and naked hiking, there is seemingly no subject the long-running show hasn’t touched.

Well-liked presenter John Craven has been a mainstay of the programme for 30 years and is proud of what the show has achieved.

Countryfile’s appeal to viewers of all ages and walks of life explains its longevity, says John, 78.

“It’s not just watched by farmers and country dwellers, plenty of city people watch, too.

“For many, it’s a vicarious trip into the countryside without leaving their armchair.”

The show started in 1988, replacing Farming, which was aimed solely at farmers. Realising it was time to reflect all aspects of the countryside, the BBC decided a more expansive format was required.

Countryfile had been running several months before John – who’d been presenting and editing John Craven’s Newsround – was recruited to anchor the programme.

“After 17 years on Newsround, I started realising I was by far the oldest member of the team. Everyone else had watched it whilst at school so I thought it was time to move on,” notes John.

The chance to present Countryfile offered John the “perfect move”.

He explains: “I’d covered plenty of environmental issues on Newsround, arguably the first ‘green’ TV news bulletin, so it was a great opportunity.

“Back then, I lived in the countryside, on top of the Chilterns, so the countryside was, and always has been, a great interest of mine.”

It also enabled him to escape the pigeon-hole he had as a children’s presenter, having presented more than 3,000 news bulletins.

“Joining Countryfile meant people started accepting me as a grown-up broadcaster.”

There were other perks with the job, too. “It meant not having to wear a suit, something I’ve avoided throughout my TV career!”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes part in a phone-in on the BBC’s Saturday Superstore with presenter John Craven. She later judged music videos on the programme’s ‘pop panel’.

During his Newsround days, which began as a six-week experiment and became an institution, John became famous for his colourful jumpers.

“Viewers even knitted them for me. Of course, they don’t fit now – but perhaps it’s just as well because I wear much simpler designs now,” laughs John, who began his working life as a commercial apprentice at ICI.

He became so interested in writing for the company’s in-house magazine that he switched careers and joined the Harrogate Advertiser as a junior reporter, although by then he was already editing the local church newspaper.

After working for several papers, he joined BBC’s news staff in Newcastle. He read the news on regional TV, including programmes such as Look North and Points West, before breaking into network TV presenting Search, a children’s current affairs show from which Newsround was born.

Many people still remember John Craven from his 17 years presenting Newsround or shows such as Multi-coloured Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore.

“When I presented Newsround and other children’s programmes, which I did for 20 years, kids would stop me for autographs.

“After joining Countryfile, fewer children knew me. If they did ask for an autograph, it was normally for their grandma. But as soon as Countryfile switched from mornings to early evening and became a real family show, children wanted my autograph again.

“So I’ve come full circle.”

Over the years presenting Countryfile, John has witnessed not only changes to the programme’s format but within the countryside too.

“Although many of our stories celebrate the countryside, we have a hard edge to the programme and don’t shy away from big issues. But we’re not a campaigning programme – we present both sides of an argument.

“Initially, farmers were reluctant to talk about their business – even to neighbours, let alone me.

“Now, they’re much more willing to open the farm gate and let us see what’s going on. Country people respect us because we’re out in all weathers – we’re not just a fair weather show.”

The presenters certainly don’t shirk their duties, even when things get rather uncomfortable. Over the years, there have been plenty of occasions when filming didn’t go to plan.

“There have been quite a few times!” says John, smiling as he recalls moments which will remain with him for the rest of his days.

“Once, I was talking to a vet who was examining a pregnant cow when it suddenly evacuated over both of us – not a pleasant experience!

“On another occasion, I was upended by a Highland cow whose horn got stuck in my anorak and up I went, landing on the floor.

“And I’ll never forget the time I was filming a link between stories and leant against a five-bar gate thinking it was shut. Unfortunately it wasn’t, so it swung open and I fell into the mud.”

Then there was the time John was chased by a large oxen at a farm owned by fellow presenter, Adam Henson. “I was going to lead it along but it had different ideas.

“It turned its huge head and started chasing me. It was a worrying moment as I raced across the field. Fortunately, Adam was there to take control. Moments like those are all part of the job!”

During the programme’s lifetime, the public have been afforded greater access to the countryside, particularly the wilder places. This pleases John.

“We Brits have a special attachment to our countryside.

“Most of us possess a proprietorial attitude and don’t want anything to harm it.”

John, who also hosts the off-shoot series Countryfile Diaries, regards himself as among the luckiest men around after visiting virtually every corner of the British Isles. But he has eased the workload slightly.

“I don’t do as many Countryfiles as I used do because at 78, I’m getting on a bit!” he laughs.

“I make about 20 films a year now because, although I still love co-presenting the show, there is an awful lot of travelling involved.”

When it comes to picking his favourite corner of Britain, he finds it near impossible to select his number one location. “I love almost everywhere.”

But being from Yorkshire, the Dales are high on his list of favourites. “Coming from Leeds, the Dales introduced me to the countryside and have remained special. I love the open landscapes and lush valleys – each dale having its own character.

“But there are so many other places, including Northumberland, which is such a quiet, beautiful region. From the Cheviot Hills to the wonderful beaches along its gorgeous coastline, it’s a stunning corner of Britain.”

Many 78-year-olds would, by now, be enjoying their well-earned retirement but for John Craven, retiring isn’t something he’s considering yet. “I hope to carry on for as long as I’m able, although the ideal situation is to work when I want to.

“I’ve always enjoyed the process of television and would hate to give it up. I don’t mind stepping back, but still want to be involved.”

Countryfile is on BBC1, Sundays.