W hen I first started researching for Countryfile in 2006, I trotted into the office, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with dozens of stories just waiting to be splashed over BBC One on a Sunday evening. After all, I’d grown up on a farm and I owned a sturdy pair of walking boots. Piece of cake.
Most of my early ideas never saw the light of day; not because they were bad ideas as such (although some, I admit, were terrible. My suggestion to buy a Countryfile flock of sheep, in the spirit of the Blue Peter dog, didn’t go down too well with a production team based in central Birmingham). No, something altogether more practical and obvious proved a challenge – the complex art of making television. It is always underestimated. I quickly learnt my first lesson – it takes a lot more than just a good idea to make it on to Countryfile.
The first thing that surprises everyone is just how long it takes to create an episode. Making Countryfile is never just about the story – it’s about driving to and from remote locations, lugging kit, loading cameras with tapes and batteries, rigging lights, attaching microphones to people’s clothes, learning scripts, first takes (“Cut! I can hear a plane”) and second takes (“Cut! Just wait for that cow to stop bawling”).
That’s the reality of telly, and these factors mean we have to filter a world of possibilities and work out what’s achievable, a job that falls to our team of researchers. Every single story on Countryfile starts with someone making a phone call or sending an email.
The programme is made up of four main elements. The location – mainly presented by Matt Baker, Julia Bradbury and Ellie Harrison – anchors the programme in one area of the country. Then there’s the issue-led investigations, presented by John Craven or Tom Heap; Adam’s Farm presented, of course, by Adam Henson; and the features – one-off stories around the UK shared between Jules Hudson, Katie Knapman and James Wong.
For the main anchor of the show, we’ll find a part of the UK where something interesting is happening. It could be tied in with the changing seasons or an amazing wildlife event, such as Katie’s trip to Scotland to release sea eagles into the wild or Matt surfing the Severn Bore.
As the location is the main drive for the programme, a researcher gets cracking on finding somewhere about four weeks before transmission. In a single programme, Matt, Julia or Ellie will present two or three stories each, so it’s down to the researcher to come up with enough ideas to fill that amount of airtime. The researchers trawl the internet, phone their contacts, plough through press releases and scour the archive in search of new angles on past stories (in 24 years of Countryfile, it’s likely we’ve filmed there at least once before).
We get a lot of ideas pitched from countryside organisations, charities and local authorities, and the viewers often get in touch, too, sharing their thoughts for the show. Sometimes the ideas are great; others fall at the first hurdle – it can be the wrong time of year, logistically impossible or we’ve missed the boat (literally sometimes – the tide timetable has scuppered a lot of plans over the years).
On average we get half a day to film one story. So unless we’re pretty much guaranteed a shot of a capercaillie, it’s difficult to justify a four-hour hike through the Scottish wilds, weighed down with armfuls of bulky equipment.
There are a lot of things to consider in that first research week. Dozens of phone calls later, a few hopes raised and dashed, the researcher whittles it down to a list of rock solid great stories. At least they hope so – they have to convince the producers first. The bosses put every story through its paces and only once they’re satisfied does the idea begin its metamorphosis into a film.
But getting the green light is only the beginning. You’ve now got to make it happen. To scope out the practicalities and get a feel for the location, we go on a recce. There are no cameras and no presenters at this stage, just a researcher, now joined by two directors and possibly a runner. Hopefully, any nasty surprises will reveal themselves at this stage, giving us enough time to change our plans and think of something else before the shoot. More often than not, our recces are a pleasure and it’s full steam ahead. Sometimes, however, we turn up expecting one thing and discover something completely different. There’s nothing worse than catching a sidelong look from your colleague and resigning yourself to going back to the drawing board.
I’ll never forget my recce to Cadair Idris, a mountain in north Wales, for our sister programme Country Tracks. The idea was our presenter would climb the mountain with a qualified paraglider, carrying the equipment on their back, before paragliding to the bottom. It sounded great on the phone – paragliders do it all the time, we heard – so we arranged to meet them at the bottom of the “most direct route to the summit”.
Now, I’m not adverse to a bit of sweat on a shoot. I’ve lugged a camera to the top of Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons and through knee-deep snow in the Cairngorms, but Cadair Idris, from a filming point of view, was unconquerable. This slowly dawned on me as I grabbed fistfuls of vegetation to pull myself up the almost-vertical path. My suspicions were confirmed when I climbed over an electric fence and imagined how I’d negotiate such a tricky manoeuvre while carrying a tripod.
Watching the weather
Alas, you can’t plan for everything. No matter how much we’ve thought it through and talked it over, we are slaves to the weather. This was particularly true on a Countryfile recce in the Cairngorms in January 2010. We were having one of the snowiest winters on record and the stories reflected that – we had arranged for Matt and Julia to go husky racing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing.
The directors and I travelled up two days before the shoot to meet our interviewees and check everything was OK. There was snow as far as the eye could see. The conditions seemed perfect. That evening in our hotel, I called the ski resort’s press office and our best-laid plans started to unravel. “It’s still snowing up here,” said the press officer. “Brilliant!” I trilled, “we want plenty of snow.” “Well, it’s actually getting a bit dangerous now. As long as we don’t get a heavy fall overnight we should be ok.” It was not what I expected to hear. I rang him again the following morning. “We’ve closed the mountain,” he reported. “Too much snow.”
And it got worse. It was too deep and frozen for husky racing – the dogs could break their legs if they tried to run through it – and the cross-country trails had disappeared under the drifts. We’d lost three stories the day before the shoot and we started to panic slightly. I remember standing in the snow, making frantic phone calls. Matt, Julia and the crews were due to arrive in a few hours and we had nothing to film apart from a very white landscape.
When the husky owners rang back to say they had an idea, we were jubilant. They took us to a beautiful pine forest where, thanks to the overhanging boughs, the ground was sheltered. They managed to shovel enough snow to make a track and our race went ahead, against all the odds.
The slopes reopened just in time too, and thanks to the help of an experienced biathlete, Matt was able to navigate the trails. In the end, it was one of our best shoots and it made a cracking programme.
It may have been chaos behind the scenes and it may have been a struggle, but because we have one of closest knit teams in the business and hundreds of people around the country willing to go the extra mile, you can never really see the trouble we have all had when you settle down to watch Countryfile on a Sunday evening. At least we hope you can’t.
The team behind Countryfile
The cycle of one programme, from concept to completion, is six weeks. That’s four weeks to research, recce and film, one week to edit and one week to tie all the films together in what we call the compile. The presenters record their voiceover (called the dub) a few days before the programme is broadcast. Here are the people that make Countryfile…
Executive producer: The boss is responsible for more than one BBC programme or series, not just Countryfile. It’s their job to sign off the programme.
Series producer: The series producer is in charge of every aspect of the programme.
Three producers: They look after certain sections, each taking responsibility for the locations, investigations or Adam’s Farm and the features.
12 directing assistant producers: Our directors work on a rota so you won’t see their names on every single programme. They spend a few weeks working on one show writing scripts, directing the presenters and crews and overseeing the edit.
Seven researchers: Researchers find the stories, locations and contributors, write research briefs for the directors, check the facts and compile a filming schedule.
Production manager: The holder of the purse strings. As well as managing the budget, the production manager keeps the show on the road by managing the rota and staffing.
Two production co-ordinators: These look after the paperwork and make sure we get all the right forms signed, book our camera crews and generally keep Countryfile organised.
Two production management assistants: They book all hotels, hire cars, flights and train tickets.
Two runners: They support the directors, presenters and crews and make sure a shoot runs as smoothly as possible.
Post production: The editors, dubbing mixers, graphic designers and edit assistants take care of the technical side of things. They transform bags of tapes into television.