Last Night's TV: The birdman delivers a coop de grâce

Hugh's Chicken Run, Channel 4
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The Independent Culture

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the television chef and enthusiastic impresario of the pricey English bucolic idyll, has set himself a mission in his new television series. He wants to turn his local town, Axminster, into Britain's first free-range chicken community. Last night, in the first of three episodes of Hugh's Chicken Run, he set out his various ideas about how he might wean people off low-cost poultry, arguing that "if consumers knew what it took to produce chicken so cheaply, they would refuse to eat it".

His challenge in the series is to educate the local people without making them feel like they are being patronised. The latter is something that shows like this always struggle with, because they are patronising by nature, and it is to Fearnley-Whittingstall's credit that he grasped from the start that showing people rather than telling them is the best approach. By happy coincidence, that is the most telegenic approach as well, and it inspired a gratifying number of different and interesting ways of going about the mission.

The inspirations behind his techniques were not hard to discern. Early attempts to tackle shoppers in the car park at Tesco, and ask them how many actual-size plastic chickens they felt should be placed in an actual-size one-metre-square wooden pen, were reminiscent of Janet Street-Porter's interventions about free-range veal on Gordon Ramsay's The F Word. Likewise, in another prong of his attack, it was easy to spot the influence of Jamie Oliver's assault on Britain's school dinners. Fearnley-Whittingstall's involvement last night with the women who run the canteen in Axminster Power Tools, the town's second-biggest employer, was an obvious homage.

His idea was to get the women to stop serving up microwaved frozen omelette, or bought-in cottage pie, and cook free-range food themselves instead. Rosie, the canteen's chief caterer, said she was frightened of roasting chicken, for fear that it wasn't "cooked properly". But when the sudden appearance of expensive chickens, beautifully roasted, packed the usually languishing canteen with happy eaters, delivering bigger profits than usual, she professed herself a convert. Rosie had never tasted a free-range chicken herself, and was much surprised by its far superior flavour, which certainly indicates just how little the middle-class obsession with fresh organic ingredients has penetrated the mainstream.

Another of Fearnley-Whittingstall's lines of attack involved persuading people on the local estate to start caring for chickens themselves, on some disused allotments. This approach nodded to that of Monty Don, the media gardener who tried to show in another series that working the land was spiritually enhancing enough to help rehabilitate drug addicts.

The people attracted to the project were by no means drug-addicts. On the contrary, the group self-selected as highly motivated can-do types. Yet they, the women particularly, seemed unaware of the paradox involved in being very overweight and at the same time insisting that without cheap food they could not survive. It was on the allotments that the human-interest quotient of the show was at its highest. Here were people seizing with both hands the opportunity to do something they'd never had the chance to do before, and rising wonderfully to the occasion.

The person who has had most success in achieving a goal broadly similar to Fearnley-Whittingstall's, though, is Rebecca Hosking, who tackled not the commercial distribution of food itself, but the packaging it was transported in. The wildlife photographer discovered during her day-job how severely the use of plastic bags worldwide impacted on marine life in Hawaii. She then used the knowledge to persuade absolutely everyone in her home town, Modbury in south Devon, to stop using carrier bags.

The advantage she had over Fearnley-Whittingstall was that no one in Hawaii had a vested interest in stopping her from filming the degradation and using the evidence to inspire a change of attitude. Fearnley-Whittingstall, though, could not get access to any factory farm, in order to show what was involved in producing a 2.50 chicken. So he decided that he would start a factory farm himself.

Ordering 4,000 chickens and acquiring a broiler house was easy. But Fearnley-Whittingstall had difficulty hiring a stockman. Eventually a young man from Northern Ireland, John Kirkpatrick, stepped up to the plate. In what seemed like a genuine indication of how threatened by the project the industry feels, a friend in "the reputable poultry business" gave Kirkpatrick a concerned call to warn him that if he got involved, he'd find it hard to get any work ever again.

Undaunted, Kirkpatrick worked like a slave to get the operation up and running, so that every stage in a factory chicken's 39-day life could be documented for the series, and displayed to the people of Axminster. Should they take heed? Only if they do not believe that there's a link between providing inferior products for the poor, and keeping them that way. This series isn't just about how our culture treats chickens. It's about how it treats people too.