Brendan Behan once pointed out that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. A few weeks ago, I got a very small taste of what he meant when BBC’s Countryfile visited our farm to film an item on the future of British beef post Brexit, to be broadcast to an audience of nine million people.
The director had rung me up some weeks earlier to ask whether they might film a follow-up interview to a piece I had written in Farmers Weekly. Was I interested? Frankly, I wasn’t sure.
If I stare at a blank computer screen long enough, I can usually come up with a vaguely coherent series of sentences. But put me in front of a camera and I um and I err and I waffle. Would I make a terrible fool of myself?
But the director sounded genuinely interested in the topic of the future of British beef, so I agreed to do the interview.
Fortunately, when the Countryfile film unit arrived a few days later, I saw I was in very good hands. And I had plenty of time to rehearse in my head what I was going to say while they filmed scenic shots of the cattle looking splendid on the Downs and the Pevensey marsh.
The original article for Farmers Weekly that spawned the Countryfile film was about the likely catastrophic effect of a no-deal Brexit on my organic, pedigree Sussex cattle beef enterprise.
Countryfile wanted to expand that topic to a broader discussion about the unique history and qualities of the Sussex breed and to film us serving and eating Sussex beef in the pub that we own.
This was great news for me, because my wife has written a book that involved her in extensive research into the history of the Sussex cattle breed. So Countryfile interviewed her about that.
Similarly, when it came to the fabulous eating quality of Sussex cattle, they interviewed the head chef at the pub as he cooked a succulent côte de boeuf.
Phew, a bit less pressure on me. All I had to do was to try to explain in a few punchy sentences the threat that a no deal-Brexit represented to British beef farmers.
The crux of that issue is the government’s announced intention that, in the event of no deal, the UK will halve the existing EU beef import tariff, which I calculate will knock about £300 a head off the farmgate value of an average-weight bullock.
For several days after the broadcast, my social media went wild; emails from friends and business contacts surged, and strangers emerged from their gardens backing onto my fields to hail my Landrover. Everyone, it seems, watches Countryfile.
I’ve no idea if I managed to explain my point adequately. Non-farming friends have congratulated me on “tackling a serious and important point”. Is this code for “I didn’t understand a word of it”?
So yes, I ummed and erred and waffled, but who cared?
Quite unexpectedly, since the broadcast, our little pub’s phone has hardly stopped ringing with people wishing to book tables. Behan was right and I needn’t have worried about my own performance.
My concerns about the clarity of my message were nothing compared with the effect of exposing a primetime audience to a herd of Sussex cattle on the South Downs, glowing in the summer sunshine.