Television Review

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OLIVER WALSTON is a wealthy farmer who receives vast amounts of taxpayers' money ever year in EU subsidies and, by his own account, spends his idle hours tearing up hedgerows, spraying pesticides on helpless voles and skylarks and personally rubbing handfuls of oil-seed rape in the faces of hayfever-sufferers. Clearly, widespread popularity is not an option for him; instead, he has decided to go for universal loathing. Hence Against the Grain (BBC2), four programmes in which Walston travels the length and breadth of the nation meeting barely solvent farmers and telling them that they should give up their subsidies and compete on the open market. The fact that he is still alive after three programmes I can only put down to the slow, rural tempo of the sturdy British yeoman. While the farmers were carefully weighing up the merits of modern scientific methods versus traditional country ways - a combine harvester would have finished him off quickly and thoroughly, but a hand-wielded scythe would be so much more satisfying - Walston would have packed his bags, dived into the Mercedes four-wheel drive and sped off with a merry cry of "Two hundred grand a year! That's what Brussels pays me!"

Frankly, the farmers have my sympathy; but that doesn't detract from the simplicity and force of Walston's argument. Farmers are paid to produce things that nobody will buy, and the more they produce, the more they are paid (that's unless they have set-aside land, in which case they are paid to produce nothing at all). This is clearly mad: so why not make farmers compete on the open market?

This simplicity is the series' great strength, but also its great failing. Walston's point was made in the first week, and now he's getting repetitive. Last night's programme did add some complexity, as Walston conceded that it makes sense to pay some form of subsidy to hill farmers in remote areas: agriculture there keeps the countryside beautiful - crops the grass, keeps the dry stone walls in order, dots the hills with attractive white sheep - and provides jobs. Why subsidise production, though, instead of simply offering income support and payments for looking after the scenery? Still, the argument and Walston's don't-give-a-damn charm are both stretched thin.

After farmers, estate agents - if Jim Davidson had been thrown in with a linking script, this could have been themed as BBC2's "Hate Night". In Raising the Roof (BBC2), Paul Kenyon went around the country door-stepping estate agents with dismayingly conflicting interests - one had left a trail of ill-feeling as he bought property at knock-down prices; another had sold shoddily restored houses under someone else's name.

The programme lacked investigative oomph - at one point, Kenyon triumphantly brandished a letter which he said proved murky dealing. But with only a vague indication of who had written it and what its contents were, it was hard for the viewer to share his satisfaction. Later, he pretended to be an estate agent himself, but cracked after 15 seconds and blurted out that he was a BBC reporter. Still, his message got across - any crook can call himself an estate agent and there is no effective regulatory body. Open markets are dodgy things.