We all find ourselves, at some stage in our lives, doing something we know to be wrong. And, when we are discovered by our peers, our stature is radically diminished in their eyes.
I’ve always dreaded this moment, which has been the subject of many anxiety dreams over the years. Sometimes it’s square-dancing; sometimes eating floral arrangements in hotel lobbies; sometimes finding that, in a moment of temporary insanity, I’ve voted Liberal. Setting all these scenarios to one side, I must say that the day that I wish could be struck from the annals of history is August 5th 2016. What was I thinking? How could I let myself be fooled into even considering attending BBC Countryfile Live 2016? Being there at all was bad enough, but as a punter? I’m overcome with the same visceral shame that I would feel if it were I, and I alone, who shot Bambi’s mother.
I didn’t visit this alleged country event without cause; there was a good reason – it was because the ticket was free. My meanness of spirit was my undoing; I accepted a friend’s invitation to accompany her to Blenheim Palace on the second day of the show. We planned to set off early to avoid the hordes of Chris Packham impersonators who would flock to the site hoping to cure medical complaints by touching the robe-hems of the BBC’s bucolic icons.
As reports of the first day came in it looked like we’d made the right choice. Oxfordshire had been brought to a shuddering halt by traffic jams, and worse still its petrol stations were running low on stocks of instant Horlicks and Lucozade. News footage showed a showground was awash with pastel-shaded M&S windcheaters and comedy gumboots. Floods of middle-aged couples were slogging through the sweltering August heat, beset by grandchildren and loaded down with deckchairs, sun shades, picnic tables, hampers and flasks. It looked like a sunny version of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
The next day, we set off at five o’clock congratulating ourselves on our cunning plan to avoid the congestion. I can remember saying, “Any moment now, we’ll hit the queue. Just be careful when you go round this corner ‘cos the queue for the CLA used to start about here.” My front-seat navigation advice petered out as we approached Blenheim Palace on deserted roads. There wasn’t even traffic management at the entrance. We found the yellow car park, which wasn’t yellow at all, dumped the car and canvassed advice from a friendly member of staff.
“Which bus do we get on to get to the show thingee?” I asked, hopelessly out of my depth.
“Buses?” he said quizzically, “the tractors’ll take you to the show ground from just over there.” He pointed and then yawned. “They start at 9.30am. The gates open at 10am.”
It was 6.30am. My host, chauffeur and lift home was not amused. I suggested we find a breakfast venue. Back up the drive we found a small hotel with a dining room. The breakfast menu looked fine, so we decided to give it a go. We were told politely that, as yesterday had been so hectic, the kitchen was only supplying a cooked breakfast for “staying guests”. This turned out to mean “BBC executives” and soon the place was soon filled with gesticulating, theatrical types. Never had I seen so many people talking such bollocks at such an early hour in the morning. The menu was scrutinised for virtue signals like “quinoa”, “vegan” and “caffeine-free”. We finished our coffee and decided to return to the car park as the charming family on our table said that the tractors had started early on the previous day.
Soon we were clambering onto a trailer with bench seats and being drawn towards the show ground. The mood on board was jolly, and my neighbour showed me a couple of publications she had brought along to get Chris Packham to sign. I wretched violently, bringing our interaction to an end. Disembarking, we joined the queue. The gates opened early and we shuffled expectantly onto the show ground.
It was like no showground I had ever been on. We scrutinised the map, which appeared to show the temple complex at Karnak – slightly smaller, I’ll grant you, but the similarities were unmistakeable. Utilitarian refreshment stalls punctuated the spaces between the huge marquees that loomed like gothic cathedrals. “National Trust, RSPB, BBC Radio Oxford,” they proclaimed. “Come one, come all and worship at these latter day shrines of vacuous” The stages in each were being prepared for the god-like apparition of Chris or Matt or Kate and their guests. In case you’d forgotten the names of the BBC Countryfile presenters, the aisles of the show were named after them: Adam’s Way, Anita’s Passage, Ellie’s Avenue and so on.
After some hellishly expensive coffee, we traversed Anita’s Passage to the far end of the show ground, where we saw some familiar trade signs. Most of the stalls were high street goods out for a country weekend. Many traders had been put off by the total absence of anything to do with shooting. I found one seller of shooting goods, but he wasn’t busy. At the end of Henson Prospect, I found Eric Spencer Tweeds. The tent displayed its usual quality of presentation, but the mood inside was dour. The wizened oracle of tweed, Ronnie, lost no time in telling me the indignities he had suffered during the harrowing set-up the day before. Further down the aisle we found the Fortis stand, most of which was hidden behind a tree. Trading under these conditions for four days would need grit, determination and an irrational level of optimism.
We plodded back to the event tents, and I poked my head inside one. Gambolling about on the stage was a troupe of dancers clad as animals. The audience clapped along with the music, uncritically accepting this infantile presentation of the British countryside. My heart sank. They were being softened up for a celebrity appearance like every other studio audience in the world. However, outside in the sweltering heat, the rings were packed three deep to see demos of ferreting, sheepdog training and falconry. I’d say that the audiences around the rings outnumbered those in the tents.
I pondered these matters as we set up a defensive bridgehead at The Country Gentleman’s Association enclosure, where the old-fashioned hospitality of delightful people did credit to British country life. As the umpteenth gin headed down the little red lane, my mood improved. I was happy that I hadn’t taken space here this year, but next year might be a different matter. There’s hope yet for the BBC Countryfileside Live idea, providing the London-based organisers wake up and smell the cow-pats.
Presenting a sanitised and politically correct view of rural life is almost guaranteed to fail in the long-run, but if this show becomes more inclusive and starts appealing to real countryside interests then there is no reason why it could not become a success. Let’s get rid of the cult of celebrity and widen the show’s appeal to the real country community. Then who knows, you might have a roaring success on your hands. Perhaps the television programme of the same name might benefit from similar reforms. After all, the countryside is too important to become just another BBC brand