Countryside alliance

GodsOwnCountrypair

As we slowly trudge into October and the last quarter of 2017, I find myself in analytical mood. What have been the best films of the year? I’ve seen a lot. Getting on for 200 at the end of September, which won’t be as many as an indentured national newspaper critic, but it’s enough to get a clear view, especially with all the smaller, independent, arthouse and foreign-language pictured that enhance my life. But I’m delighted to find that UK films have given me a particular thrill this year, many of them debuts. Two of them about farming.

Warming to my theme, let’s stick with films made by British filmmakers. These are not debuts, but they all speak of the fertility of homegrown writers and directors: Free Fire, the latest formal provocation by Ben Wheatley, struck me as personal and audacious; Terence Davies, a veteran, produced arguably his best work, A Quiet Passion; Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver felt like a gift to the world and a personal triumph; Roger Michell (South African-born but works here) bounced back with My Cousin Rachel, and Mick Jackson produced Denial, a strong, sure, wordy David Hare-adapted piece from another veteran long since thought lost to Hollywood. At the other end of the career scale, thrilling, idiosyncractic, varied debuts came from William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Gareth Tunley (The Ghoul), Mark Gill (England is Mine) and Christine Frantz (Bunch of Kunst). Welsh documentarian Jonny Owen’s Don’t Take Me Home, his second film, also showed talent, while Alex Barrett’s first feature-length doc London Symphony established his, and Daniel Draper’s Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast was clearly a labour of love.

The view, you have to admit, is pretty bracing. Which takes us to Yorkshire.

GodsOwnCountryview

The snapshot above was taken by director Francis Lee while shooting his debut, a deeply personal love story God’s Own Country. Actually, it’s his own country. His debut feature is based on his own life, brought up a family farm and forced to decide: should he stay or should he go? The story is built, though, around a gay male love affair, when a Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to help farmer’s son Johnny (Josh O’Connor – best known to me as one of ITV’s The Durrells) when his father (Ian Hart) is disabled. It’s shot – beautifully, by Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards – around Keighley, and the very real lambing scenes were on the director’s father’s farm. It’s gathering laurels apace – Sundance, Berlin, Edinburgh – and ploughing its own critical furrow wherever it’s shown. (See if it’s still showing near you here.)

GodsOwnCountryposter

It’s my film of the year so far. A beneficiary of its setting, visually and metaphorically, it’s a small-scale story set against boundless fields and skies whose intimacy is twofold: it’s based on Lee’s own experience, and it depicts the eventual intimacy of two men. Some early devotees of the film thumbnailed it as Brokeback Mountain transposed to the Dales, but this comparison quickly sputters out, like a quad bike out of petrol. Johnny isn’t explicitly closeted – he enjoys hook-ups at the only pub for miles and his female friend (Patsy Ferron, recently seen in Jamestown on Sky) knows – but if his taciturn father knows, he would rather die than face up to it, and if his grandmother (Gemma Jones) keeps her own counsel.

GodsOwnCountrybath

It’s not a “gay” film in the militant sense. The two men’s relationship is far more than about sex, and they spend most of their time alone together, repairing a dry stone wall or involved in animal husbandry for days at a time, sleeping in sleeping bags in a remote shed, living on nothing but Pot Noodles and cans of beer. They are free to do whatever it is they want to do, with no disapproving eyes on them. The problem is not “society”. (Indeed, Gheorghe is the one who’s not welcome at the pub because of his ethnicity. At least Johnny is “from round these parts” – his transgressions are hidden from the eyes of bar-stool bigots.) Before Gheorghe’s arrival – his “welcome” is almost comically bluff, as Johnny shows him his shitty caravan and slams the door shut – Johnny is already at a crossroads about his future and his family, and dealing with it by self-medicating. The unexpected promise of a loving same-sex relationship is clearly more than he can deal with, emotionally.

TheLevellingEK

The Levelling (above) is an approximate and unintended companion to God’s Own Country in terms of its agricultural setting but also its generational conflict. In the former, daughter Ellie Kendrick, who left to qualify as a vet, returns temporarily to the family farm to bury her brother after his apparent suicide and finds herself at odds with their father, who had expected to pass on responsibility to his son, a handover made difficult by a failed insurance claim after the floods and dire financial straits. In Lee’s film, Johnny dreams of escape but cannot bear to leave his father, whose stroke has immobilised him. (Brilliantly subtle acting from Ian Hart in this supporting role: he is a tyrant but one you can empathise and sympathise with.)

Of the two films, God’s Own Country feels more real – and less melodramatic – than The Levelling, which to be fair aims for a much more Gothic pitch, full of wild flashbacks and never far from going up in flames. But both get their hands dirty and the farming feels totally authentic in both.

GodsOwnCountryduo

It feels good to have a film of the year brewing in October. Certainly a whole gang of films made or financed in the UK are giving 2017 a perhaps pertinently vivid sense of British identity in a year when we seem hell bent on tearing ourselves away from Europe and going it foolishly alone. Who knows where it will lead. But God’s Own Country might well be a film for Brexit, whether intended or otherwise. It’s certainly Gheorghe, the Romanian, who saves the rejected lamb from being culled using techniques he has brought with him to this country. Farming today, eh?

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Me and the farmer

When you get past a certain age, you stop expecting new things to take you by surprise. You think you’ve pretty much got the measure of what you’re into, and what you’re not into, and from which direction things that might occupy your mind will come from. And then you’ll find yourself hooked into a world you had no prior interest in. For me, such has become the Farming Today Podcast. It is my new favourite thing in the world.

Now, some context. I wouldn’t say I was not interested in farming before. Indeed, over the past 15 years, as I’ve become more and more sensitive to where the food I eat comes from, and how it gets to my plate, I’d say I’ve also become more interested in farming, but at one remove, like most vacuum-packed townies. Thanks to the organic revolution, and the cultural and legislative ripples extending therefrom, I now know the names of the farms where my meat comes from, as does every supermarket shopper who cares to read the label. I choose to order a lot of my meat from Abel & Cole, and it is accompanied by a tremendous amount of information about the farms – and farmers – it comes from. Assuming you’d rather eat local produce – and why the heck wouldn’t you? – this gets you attuned to the seasons. I’ve long been acquainted with “the hungry gap” and the difficulties of growing broccoli in a cold spring, or indeed a hot summer, without ever having once planted a seed.

That said, until my most recent stint on the 6 Music Breakfast show, I would never have sought out Farming Today on Radio 4. But because my Monday-Friday BBC cab ride put me on the back seat for half an hour each day, starting at 5.30am, I found myself listening with rapt attention to presenter Charlotte Smith one morning – Farming Today airs daily from 5.45-6am – as she linked items about Schmallenberg, public footpath legislation, the East Anglian drought and the National Farmers’ Union conference. (She and Anna Hill share presenting duties.) I found myself asking the next day’s driver if he minded putting Radio 4 on, and within two days I was a convert. I started looking forward to 5.45am.

Once back in the routine of the real world, I was thrilled, if not surprised, to discover that Farming Today is available as a daily podcast – including the 25-minute Saturday morning compendium – and I immediately subscribed, by now desperate for my fix of farming news. I need to hear what latest excuse Caroline Spellman is giving for the badger cull, and whether they’ve had any more cases of Schmallenberg at the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar.

Charlotte Smith and Anna Hill are excellent presenters, always linking the show from somewhere farmy, like a lambing shed in Shropshire, or a ford in Norfolk (I think it’s Charlotte who always forgets to take her wellies), and brilliantly and poetically describing what they can see (the classic “painting with words” found in much quality radio). It seems to me to be a very balanced programme; no more anti-town or get-off-my-land than the farmers are anti-welfare. The programme clearly acts as a bulletin to those in the farming community, but it strikes me that it’s designed just as carefully to appeal to those of us on the outside of the perimeter fence. Difficult questions are always asked whether it’s of those in government, or in industrial food manufacturing, or environmental pressure groups. (For instance, a woman from Compassion In World Farming, a group with whom I might generally ally myself, was given a hard time for persecuting pig farmers in a recent edition, and she failed to defend the group’s actions in this case. An item on halal meat was similarly fair, covering the inconsistency of labelling and the cruelty of slaughtering cows without stunning them first, without disregarding the religious reasoning behind it.)

Hey, Schmallenberg. It’s a horribly unpredictable new German viral infection that causes birth defects in lambs and calves and has begun to crop up across Europe and in this country – potentially the next bluetongue – and although you won’t read much about it in the mainstream media, if you listen to Farming Today, you’ll be well ahead of the worrying curve. As yet, it is a condition farmers are not even legally obliged to report, and as it’s thought to be transmitted by midges, there’s nothing anybody can do about it yet, with livestock farmers able only to cross their fingers during lambing. Unlike The Archers, which I’ve always disliked, this really is the everyday story of country folk, and I would hate to miss an episode.

I’m not really writing this blog entry with the intention of sending anyone rushing to the Farming Today podcast page, but the programme is an excellent example of what the BBC should be doing. Since tuning in, I have become much better informed about so many aspects of farming, from livestock to arable, horticulture to straw production. (Did you know that power stations use straw for fuel, which drives up the price and reduces the stock generally used by livestock farmers to feed their cows and to make their lives more comfortable in sheds and yards?) Even better, they have yet to mention Alex James in all of the editions I’ve listened to. Long may that continue.