Cameras roll but are farmers ready for their close-up?

This Farming Life covered all the highs and lows. Picture: Jane Handa/BBC
This Farming Life covered all the highs and lows. Picture: Jane Handa/BBC
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If the recent 12-part television series This Farming Life showed anything, it was that farming can be and often is “just one damned thing after another”.

That is particularly true if livestock are involved and I was impressed by the calmness and stoicism generally shown by farmers faced with difficult calvings and lambings, dead stock and lousy weather.

That was counteracted by showing us the high points for some of showring successes, superb scenery and good weather, decent prices and the implicit importance of women and family life in farming. As we saw in the series, strong partnerships can take several forms and the wry saying about a couple being together for many years “with never a cross word – at least today” crossed my mind occasionally during some fraught moments.

The series also showed, without being judgemental, a range of approaches to farming as well as a range of systems from the atypical ex-barrister crofter on Lewis to John Scott’s 4,000 ewes at Fearn. I try to confine shouting at the television to politicians, bankers, and inflated obituaries for singers, but broke my own rule a few times and not always about something Sybil was trying to do.

But that’s reality TV – or at least I assume it is from reviews and comments about programmes made in artificial environments such as I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. The idea of these as I understand it is to select a cross-section of personalities, most unattractive, to create tension on the set and inspire liking or loathing in viewers.

This Farming Life didn’t set out to do that because in their way most of the people were likeable. The intention was only to show farming life as it is lived by some of those at the sharp end. If it had been a popularity contest it would have been a close call and I’m not going to be silly enough to say who my own winner would have been.

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But that thought prompted another, namely how were the farming families chosen? The first requirement must have been willingness, possibly eagerness, to take part and I admire anyone prepared to set themselves up like that for a possible fall. There must also have been a selection process by the TV production team, probably from an initial list provided by the Scottish Rural University College (SRUC) which got a prominent credit on each episode.

What were they looking for? What questions were asked? Were there test runs of a difficult lambing or calving for potential participants? As with the series Lambing Live I was struck in This Farming Life by the preternatural calm in lambing sheds where things were going badly wrong.

There was no bad language and no words bleeped out. No dead lamb was, as my late grandfather used to say, blessed on its way to the kennel cart. I can only assume that more volatile shepherds or stockmen were not selected for the final mix:

“This is what we call a breach birth … hang on, where’s that leg gone … dear me, that leg appears to belong to another lamb … ah, now we’re getting there … ****** me, no, we’re not … look, give me a bit of room and get the camera out the way … got it, coming now … **** no, it’s stuck … turn that b****y camera off … and the sound … or do you want it rammed up … what do you mean, thanks for your help and we’ll let you know?”

I only put that forward as a suggestion of what might have happened during the selection process. It might be that all round Britain shepherds taking time off from their own lambing traumas to watch thought “Yes, that’s exactly how I react and act.” Possibly.

If there was a criticism of the actual series it was that it’s possible to have too many close-ups of caesarean and difficult births. But then I’m squeamish. And as there also seems to be a limitless TV appetite for human midwifery and difficult births we can only assume that the makers of This Farming Life knew what they were doing. An average audience of about 1.7 million seemed to agree.