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Peter Hill
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Peter Hill

On the inside at the Beeb

Published on 17th March 2012

Ah, so this is what Ambridge looks like. Not the chocolate box village of our imagination but half a dozen rooms in a studio that produces a daily dose of rural life for millions of listeners.

The microphones that have recorded some iconic characters in The Archers over the years stood idle as Guild members toured the set with agricultural story editor Steve Peacock as part of the annual meeting programme at the BBC's offices and studios in Birmingham.

Julie MateThanks to persistent requests from Guild council member Julie Mate (right), who organised the event, members were greeted by Andrew Thorman, head of rural affairs, who was instrumental in securing today's enormously successful Sunday evening prime slot for Countryfile on BBC television.

Fran Barnes, editor of farming, food and rural affairs programmes on BBC Radio 4, and Matt Gull, producer of John Craven's investigative reports on Countryfile, also welcomed the Guild contingent before explaining the role and objectives of their programmes.

Andrew Thorman (pictured below) said: "Public interest in the countryside and about how our food is produced is at an unprecedented level, and that is reflected in the programmes we broadcast and the audience numbers they achieve. The BBC is now tremendously supportive of these programmes."

Fran Barnes, who emphasised that programme makers must tread a fine line between providing information to famers and meeting the BBC's duty to inform the general public about farming and rural affairs, believes the popularity of the broadcasts reflects a renaissance in the public love of food, countryside and farming.

Andrew Thorman BBC

Fifteen years ago, Farming Today faced the chop yet today reaches record audiences that have grown from 600,000 to a million a week. The number of people watching Countryfile has grown from 1.5 million to more than 7 million in three years. The rural agenda has become more relevant to people's lives and the countryside has come to be appreciated as both a playground and a source of affordable and safe food.

Matt Gull pointed out that Countryfile is the most-watched factual programme on the BBC and its factual films are the most watched on all television.

When Midlands Guild members visited a few years ago, the rural affairs team was given a hard time over the lack of positive farming content in BBC programmes. It was very different this time; members were quick to congratulate the rural broadcasting team for bringing rural issues in general and farming issues in particular to the attention of a broad and growing audience.

Discussions aside, the highlight for many Guild members was undoubtedly the visit to the recording studio for The Archers.

The set is equipped to create the sounds that help form a picture within the mind's eye of a lively rural community. There's an old, presumably squeaky, sofa next to a kitchen with an Aga, a regular domestic cooker and a large drawer labelled 'pans', where genuine tea- and coffee-making sounds can be recorded.

The Archers - kitchen

Numerous doors with different latches, locks and hinges lead into imaginary houses, and a board carrying more than a dozen individually labelled door chimes announce visitors to particular properties - play the wrong one and ardent fans will know.

Wooden flooring represents the village hall and a staircase with different carpeted and hard surfaces characterise other properties in the village and surrounding area. The Bull, it turns out, is nothing more than an ageing box upon which the tap of a Biro is enough to have us picturing a pint glass being set down.

In the store room, cardboard boxes and shelves are piled high with other essential props; like the telephone labelled 'Joe and Eddie', a megaphone used to make announcements at the village fete and Linda Snell's surprisingly dilapidated bicycle.

Some of the sounds audiences hear are the result of decidedly creative thinking; enter the lambing sheds and it's a pot of yoghurt and a wet pillow dropped into a box of old video tape that makes the authentic sounds of a lamb being born!

The planning, writing and production process is both lengthy and incredibly detailed, and far from being precious about his role, agricultural story editor Steve Peacock (standing at the bar of The Bull, below, with one of the tour groups) made it clear he welcomes story ideas or suggestions from Guild members on topical farming issues or other matters that could be weaved into the programme.

The Archers - group

Above: Steve Peacock, agricultural story editor, The Archers, standing at the bar of The Bull with one of the Guild groups visiting the studio (from left): Rachel Jones, Farmers Weekly Farmlife; guest Nicola Collenette of the Ware Anthony Rust agency; machinery freelance Peter Hill; Peter Crowe of Chamberlain - Ware Anthony Rust; Adrian Bell, Whisper.pr; Millie Wastie, RABI and NFYFC; guest Keely Watson of Elsoms Seeds; Denis Chamberlain; arable freelance Andrew Blake; machinery freelance Simon Henley; Roger Moore of Ahead PR & Marketing; and Helen Fina, DairyCo.

Guild members left the BBC confident that its rural affairs coverage is in safe hands - but changes are around the corner: Countryfile is moving to BBC Bristol, Andrew Thorman is leaving the corporation after 35 years, and Fran Barnes is also leaving to become head of strategic communications at the NFU England & Wales.

Hopefully, these changes will not have any negative impact on the BBC's rural programming output. But former BBC producer Ken Pollock, now freelance, warned fellow Guild members after the visit of rumours that the Countryfile slot for Cotswold farmer Adam Henson may be dropped as part of a revamp of the programme.

He urged members to write or email the BBC with congratulatory comments about the programme, emphasising the crucial contribution that the Adam's Farm slot makes to educating people about farming tecchniques and technology, and the way it portrays a passionate approach to farming shared by many who grow crops and raise livestock.

Ewen Cameron + Adrian Bell + Tim Price

Guild president Ewan Cameron (left), chairman Adrian Bell and Treasurer Tim Price enjoyed meeting a Dr Who Dalek at BBC Birmingham but failed in their efforts to recruit him (it?) as a new member!

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