Last Night's Television - Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too, Channel 4; What Darwin Didn't Know, BBC4
He's rattled their cage
Tuesday 27 January 2009
A mile down the road from where I live in north Herefordshire is Springfield Poultry, long-established producers of organic, free-range chicken. My friends Stewart and Nigel, the brothers who run the company, haven't yet erected a statue to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but it's probably only a matter of time. His campaign to get the nation eating responsibly reared birds started last year with Hugh's Chicken Run, and continued last night in
Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too, with him this time aiming both barrels of his righteous indignation at Britain's most powerful supermarket chain, effectively accusing Tesco of feathering its nest at the expense of basic animal welfare.
Actually, I think nest-feathering was one of the few avian references missed by Fearnley-Whittingstall (henceforth to be called plain Hugh, to prevent syllable exhaustion). We had him refusing to "chicken out" of a scrap, "ruffling feathers" in the industry, and even going "home to roost". Meanwhile, the man at the top of the Tesco pecking order, Sir Terry Leahy, understandably refused to engage in a rhetorical cockfight. Sir Terry did not get where he is today by fighting public-relations battles he knows he cannot win. Instead, the company's polished PR lady got the gig, but not only did some of the polish wear off as she grew increasingly exasperated with the irrepressibly dogged Hugh, she also went and mixed the countryside metaphors by insisting that Tesco was "not pulling the wool over anyone's eyes" by featuring on their labels a picture of a farmer with a hat on.
The hat was clearly intended, insisted Hugh, crying fowl, to convey a misleading image of a wholesome outdoor operation. No it wasn't, said the PR lady. Yes it was, said Hugh, who as a notably committed carnivore remains in many ways an improbable hero to chickendom. Nor is he helped by his Old Etonian pedigree, which gives further ammunition to those of his critics who question whether a toff from such an affluent background has the right to encourage hard-pressed consumers to pay more for their food.
Hugh tried valiantly to torpedo this line of criticism by persuading Hayley, a single mum of limited means, to dig at least a little deeper to buy RSPCA-sanctioned Freedom Food chickens, which are reared in more humane conditions than their £2.50 counterparts. He showed her a shed containing 48,000 birds – a predictably grim spectacle – and then another one housing "only" 14,000. The cost of the improved quality of living for the 14,000, which includes the chance to hop up on to bales of hay and generally spread their wings, amounts to an extra 90p in the supermarket. Organic and free-range these chickens most definitely aren't, but 90p is surely a premium most people can absorb in the cost of their weekly supermarket shop if it means the creatures having a less wretched life. Unfortunately, the one thing nobody mentioned here was taste. I have it on good authority, rather inconveniently, that there is no evidence that a happy chicken tastes better than a miserable one.
As for Tesco, Hugh needed to become a shareholder if he was to propose a policy-changing resolution at the AGM. Then the company told him that for the clerical work involved in circulating his resolution to all his fellow shareholders, he would need to shell out £86,888. Once he had raised this vast sum, they told him that he required not just a majority, but 75 per cent of the vote. He failed to get it, but losing the battle doesn't mean that he can't still win the war. Tesco is a mightily formidable opponent, but somewhere down the line Sir Terry and his executives might realise that by giving in to Hugh and selling chickens that have had more of a chance to stretch their legs, the PR gain is greater than the financial loss. In the meantime, those 48,000 birds are still in their shed, and Hugh showed them to a fellow-traveller from the celebrity-chef brigade. "Nature would never, ever, have sculpted the genetics of a bird like this," said Jamie Oliver, looking aghast.
And so to Charles Darwin, the subject of a long and extremely erudite disquisition by the Dutch scientist Armand Marie Leroi called What Darwin Didn't Know. Now TV critics, like all other species, are subject to the basic tenets of survival of the fittest, and I confess that I weakly nodded off before Leroi, who plies his trade at Imperial College, London, had quite finished. The problem was that he didn't ever stop talking, and although his English is at least as fluent as mine, the Dutch cadences gave his lecture a soporific quality.
Still, I was awake to see him getting excited by the shores of Lake Malawi, where there are 600 species of the same fish, the cichlid. Apparently, this is the transcendent example of something called neo-Darwinian synthesis, a theory "more Darwinian than Darwin himself". Whatever, hats off to BBC4 for running this highly intelligent programme over an hour and a half. And hats off, too, to those who stayed alert throughout.
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