Englishness has had a terrible week. There was a time when a sporting defeat would lead to gnashing of teeth and fevered introspection, but only about sport. Were the tactics mistaken? Was the manager sophisticated enough? Did we have enough pitches for kids? This time, because the team came within millimetres of triumph, the recriminations have focused on England itself. What is Englishness? Is it racist? Where does it come from? Where’s it going? Is the true England Gareth Southgate’s blameless squad of activist boy geniuses, or the pint-addled fans breaking in the stadium to watch them? Rashford, Saka, Kane & co created a compelling vision of a team that stood for the country’s exciting, socially inclusive future rather than a reactionary past. In the ensuing sound and fury it has been hard to think straight.
For a less heated but equally diverting exploration of Englishness, armchair anthropologists might do better to turn off the football and head to Amazon Prime, where all eight episodes of Jeremy Clarkson trying to run his farm in Chipping Norton are available to stream. The nation’s preeminent presenter-hack bought the 1000-acre site, which he calls Diddly Squat, in 2008. Until 2019, however, he left the actual farming to a farmer, Howard, while he careered around the world doing his normal thing of smashing cars up and trying not to punch his producers or be racist. When Howard retired, Clarkson decided to take on the job and invite a camera crew along.
The resulting footage documents Clarkson’s exploits in tilling, ploughing, drilling, retailing, keeping livestock, navigating bureaucracy, worrying about the weather and the million other forces conspiring against the modern farmer. The set-up is fish out of water, where the fish is a loudmouth, narcissistic motoring journalist and the water is a bewilderingly complex, challenging and misunderstood industry. It’s an inspired structure. Clarkson uses his own blundering character as a Trojan horse to smuggle a beginner’s guide to agriculture, for which he obviously has nothing but the utmost respect.
As with all Clarkson’s best work, what makes Clarkson’s Farm so watchable is the effort put into things you don’t see. There are the usual visual gags, well-judged cuts and withering asides, delivered with the unmistakable falling cadence of his sentences, the audible ellipses… and italics he uses to make a point. At a machinery auction in the first episode, Clarkson marvels at the medieval dangerousness of all the equipment and talks to a farmer, only to see he’s missing two fingers. Was it good luck or the result of hours of footage, like a cameraman waiting two years for a 10-second Attenborough shot of a snow leopard yawning? Other producers would give an arm for that kind of timing.
Best of all, though, is the rest of the cast. There’s no way of knowing how hard the production looked for them, but they are perfect. There’s the posh smoothie land agent, Charlie, who calmly lays out the scale, and cost, of what lies ahead. There’s Clarkson’s girlfriend, Lisa, who makes timely withering interventions. Gerald, the moustachioed septuagenarian who helps with the fences and livestock. Best of all is Kaleb, the local 23-year-old who worked on the farm under its previous management, and who Clarkson hires to help. Kaleb has only been to London once. Banbury is enough of a metropolis for him. Within his field(s), he’s as masterful as the men of his age in England shirts. He constantly out no-nonsenses his boss, gets frustrated at his stupid Lamborghini tractor, and endlessly encourages him to bin it all off go back to the city. Kaleb’s the breakout TV star of the year, and is now mobbed wherever he goes. When fellow Chipping Norton setter David Cameron stopped him the other day, Kaleb didn’t recognise him.
It’s all very white and very male, as Clarkson acknowledges. I’m sure Amazon would have preferred a greater sweep of humanity. But that’s the point. While there are still plenty of white men on TV, there aren’t these ones. You would never get away with a human monoculture like this if you were casting a drama, probably rightly. But this is the reality of farming in the Cotswolds. These are people whose voices aren’t often heard on British TV, let alone global streaming services, except when they are being sent up, as in This Country. They get little love from the media. England’s rural population work extremely long hours for little reward, their expertise increasingly futile against the changing climate and the headwinds of global trade. By setting himself up as the goon, Clarkson gives the people who help him the chance to show their worth. The Guardian instinctively gave the programme one star, like a carnivorous plant obliged by obscure forces to clamp shut when it senses prey. What nonsense. Clarkson’s Farm is eight hours of informative, often hilarious viewing that shows a side of England often hidden from view, the kind of thing The Guardian normally professes to champion.
However strongly his critics protest, certain facts about Clarkson are unarguable. After being bullied at school, he eschewed university to start out as a local journalist. He’s risen to become a self-made industry in himself, a one-man entertainment export the equal of any footballer, as popular in Chennai as California. For years he has suffered from sniffy reviews – I’ve written some of them – which object to his boorishness, predictability and lack of imagination. With the latest series, he turns the tables on his detractors. Just like the football team’s run at the Euros, Clarkson’s Farm is hours of entertainment that gives voice to the voiceless and presents a hopeful vision of England. Clarkson is probably as surprised as anyone that he has become a champion of the underrepresented, but I’m sure he can see the funny side.
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