Whether via Radio 4 or on TikTok, Graham Harvey has always been determined to communicate the importance of nature. In this guest blog he reflects on his work as Agricultural Story Editor on The Archers, and talks about his new project: a TikTok drama all about regenerative farming.
Funny the places environmental writing can take you. For me it started with a series of whistle-blowing articles on the destructive impact of industrial farming, with its habit of ripping out hedges and flattening woodlands. These I exposed fortnightly in my column for the satirical magazine Private Eye. That was nearly 40 years ago. Today I’m working on a TikTok drama about a new generation of young activists campaigning for change in farming, which is still damaging nature with its chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
And in between? I wrote scripts and storylines for the country’s longest-running drama, The Archers. Officially I was a kind of Environment Secretary for the fictional world of Ambridge, making sure the storylines and dialogue accurately reflected what was happening in the British countryside. But underneath it I was slipping in stories and ideas proposing a more climate-friendly way of growing our food.
I’m now setting out to tell the whole story in my new book, Underneath The Archers. It will relate how a boy from a Reading council estate came to be running the farms on Britain’s best known drama series; how I used drama on radio, in touring theatre and now on TikTok to campaign against the needless destruction of our wildlife and countryside; and my theory that it’s not wild, remote places that contribute most to our well-being, but the working landscapes of hedges, fields and woodlands that we know so well in Britain.
The Britain I grew up in was a land of small, family farms and working village communities. These were the communities that inspired The Archers. But by the time I started writing about farming, they were under attack from a new kind of agriculture, an industrial kind we’d never seen before. In the drive for efficiency, fields were enlarged and hedges torn out. Skilled farm workers were made redundant to be replaced by giant machines and the crop sprayer, ceaselessly pouring toxic chemicals on our food plants.
In my first book The Killing of the Countryside I wrote about this needless destruction of small farms and wildlife, much of it driven by EU farm subsidies. My book shocked the nation and won the Natural World prize for environmental writing, presented to me by David Attenborough, the year before he won it for his book Life On Earth. Despite the outcry, the destruction continued. Wildlife groups remained silent, concerned only with their nature reserves. It was a short-sighted view. What hope was there for nature if farmland – making up two-thirds of our country – became a sterile wasteland?
To stay within the BBC’s rules on balance, my stories for The Archers had to be rather less shrill. But they were there all the same. I had organic farmers Pat and Tony Archer install a waste water treatment plant for their dairy, only this one took the form of a wonderful wetland habitat, soon to be teeming with wildlife. I got Adam Macy to plant flower-filled grasslands (called herbal leys), which quickly became havens for butterflies and bees. I then made sure young farmer Pip Archer and her soon-to-be lover Toby Fairbrother spent time among the waving blooms and seed-heads. A not-so-subtle reminder that a habitat restoring fertility to the soil might have the same effect on human beings!
In my 20 years running the Ambridge farms I seldom missed an opportunity to recreate in the studio what had become a vanishing idyll in the countryside. I’d set up picnic scenes in the hay field and coffee breaks in the lambing shed. In the harvest field I’d create scenes where everyone climbed out of their tractors and combines to share moments of mirth and banter, an echo of an earlier time when farming was not such a lonely job. I wanted to convey a sense that we were part of that timeless world of animals, nature and the great outdoors.
Beyond Ambridge I toured a one-woman stage play celebrating a wartime farmer and author who became famous for rejecting industrial farming and championing the small, family farm. George Henderson’s book The Farming Ladder became the surprise best-seller of 1944. He showed that even on a small farm you could produce a lot of food and make good money if you took care of your soil – which meant using nature’s methods and not plastering your land with chemical fertilisers.
In wartime Britain thousands bought the book, many of them young service men and women who dreamt of a life on the land when peace came. Tragically the post-war Atlee government crushed those dreams by bringing in state subsidies to farmers, the policy that set rural Britain on its path to industrial agriculture. Today this form of farming is widely seen to have been a catastrophe for nature, human health and the planet. Henderson’s soil-first methods are now being taken up by go-ahead young farmers across the country. They’re calling it regenerative agriculture but it’s pretty much the same thing.
Which brings me to TikTok and the drama I’ve recently set up. Called Cidershed Dreams, it’s the story of student Jessica Sweet, the two men in her life, and her newly-discovered passion for farming particularly the regenerative kind. You’ll find it on TikTok by searching for pasturepromise.tv.
This is much the same territory as Underneath The Archers. The book’s not just a celebration of a much-loved radio drama. It’s about our farming heritage, our village communities, and the countryside and wildlife they support. It’s also about my own search for connection with the two worlds, one fictional, one real.
Graham is publishing his book with the crowd-funding publisher Unbound. To help him make the book a reality, you can make a pledge here.