THE LEISURELY countryside series Out of Town brought to television the gentle nostalgic tones of Jack Hargreaves, who combined his enthusiasm for rural life with being a television executive and a presenter of the children's series How?
Hargreaves, complete with pipe, battered trilby and old bodywarmers, was keen to perpetuate the story that he was from a Yorkshire farming family, although he was actually born in London. Those who worked with him had no doubt that he moved to the country and became knowledgeable about its ways, but they were never quite sure how much of his background was reality and how much myth. After studying at London University he became a vet's assistant before switching to journalism. During his distinguished career he was editor of the magazine Lilliput and for a year managing editor of the legendary Picture Post (1955-56), as well as writing and producing for radio, and working as the National Farmer's Union's information officer.
It was in that capacity that Hargreaves went to lunch with a broadcaster to give him a ticking off for a programme about meat markets. This meeting led to his being invited to present a six-part series for Southern Television: Gone Fishing.
Then came the long-running Out of Town, first in a Southern region only, then on the ITV network, with Hargreaves reminiscing on old rural ways and customs. He would trek into the country with a film cameraman and record material without a soundtrack. Then, he would return to the studio, where from a set made to look like a potting shed he would relate his experiences and impart folklore and country knowledge. He could talk about any subject and chat to everyone, from pony-and-trap restorers to roof thatchers and gun-dog handlers. His hallmark was the ability to talk naturally to the camera and he resisted using teleprompters even when their use became almost universal throughout television.
The programme finished when Southern lost its ITV franchise in 1981, although it was later revived on Channel 4 under the title Old Country and ran for three years.
Hargreaves and Fred Dinenage were among the quartet who presented the popular ITV children's series How? between 1966 and 1979, although Dinenage was the only survivor when it was remade as How 2 in the Nineties. The programme had been Hargreaves's own idea, intended to make facts fun for children without being condescending.
'He was the greatest natural broadcaster I've ever worked with,' Dinenage recalls. 'He needed no script, no notes, no autocue - not even props. He was the television producer's dream, able to talk about any subject under the sun interestingly, amusingly and gently.'
In 1978, after presenting a series called Countryboy - in which a youngster from London was filmed spending several weeks with him learning country ways - Hargreaves opened the Out of Town Centre on Lord Montagu of Beaulieu's estate at Beaulieu, in Hampshire. It gave inner-city children the chance to work on a real farm and is now run by the Countryside Education Trust.
As well as being a popular broadcaster, Hargreaves was deputy programme controller of Southern Television from 1964 to 1976. It was in that capacity that he invented another successful series, Houseparty, featuring both ordinary people and former actresses thrown together to chat informally.
'Jack recognised that in the Southern area there were a huge number of elderly and retired people for whom television was a great boon,' says Jeremy Wallington, then the company's controller of programmes. 'He wanted to do a programme that really involved people and made them feel a part of what was going on in television.' Meridian, which now broadcasts in the South and South-East, is about to revive the show.
At 6.30pm on Tuesday evening, viewers in the Meridian television area saw another revival, with Hargreaves presenting a final edition of Out of Town as part of a programme called Southern Gold. The five- minute segment was recorded at the end of January in response to viewers' demands to see Hargreaves on screen again. He was interviewed by Fred Dinenage and reunited with his other original How? co-presenters Bunty James and Jon Millar.
'Things are still as they used to be,' he said, in his 'potting shed'. 'I still spend about half my life in the shed, particularly in wintertime. I still can't resist mending things that were busted 50 or 60 years ago and I still can't throw anything away.'
At 7.30pm on Tuesday, shortly after the programme finished, Hargreaves was dead, taking with him a love of traditional rural life that did much to enhance viewers' appreciation of country ways.
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