A Farm Through Time, review: the Ant and Dec of agriculture plough straight into parody

·2 min read
Rob and Dave Nicholson - Daisybeck studios
Rob and Dave Nicholson - Daisybeck studios

The definition of comfort TV, this first instalment of new three-part series A Farm Through Time (Channel 5) felt lab-engineered to hit that sweet spot between All Creatures Great and Small, Countryfile and Dad’s Army. Farming brothers Rob and Dave Nicholson, aided by historian Ruth Goodman, took a time-travelling trip to find out how farming evolved through the ages. Future episodes will visit the Victorians and the Iron Age, but we began with the Second World War.

As Goodman outlined, the German U-boat blockade created a supply crisis. With food imports halted, the British government asked farmers to plough an extra two million acres of land. That, in turn, sparked an agricultural revolution, with a switch from horse-powered vehicles to the new Fordson and Trusty Tractors. Even more shockingly, the dearth of male labourers meant the advent of the land girls. Mind, that role wasn’t quite as glamorous as the posters implied. One of their main tasks was – shudder – rat-catching.

That tidbit aside, this genial programme followed a well-trodden path: Dig for Victory, rationing, air raids, bunting on VE Day. Goodman, stalwart of BBC shows such as Victorian Farm, and the Nicholsons, whose Yorkshire-based Cannon Hall Farm has become a Channel 5 star, formed a sort of agrarian super-group. Add in the Nicholsons’ dad, who waxed lyrical about the simplicity of life in the good old days, plus more flat caps than you could shake a shepherd’s crook at, and it teetered on the edge of parody.

The educational segments were interspersed with extremely low-stakes competitions, such as which brother (like Ant and Dec, it took me a while to differentiate them) could plough the straightest furrow. Cue much puffing, good-natured joshing, and Bake Off-esque innuendo: “It’s a lot easier to put it in than pull it out!”

We also got lessons in sawing wood and sheep shearing. Goodman’s recognition of farmers’ heroic efforts during the war, which prevented us being starved into submission, were genuinely touching. That paired with lingering drone shots of the bucolic Tatton Park and rolling emerald fields (pre-drought, clearly) made for green and pleasant viewing – if not much more.