Spies in haystacks, ploughing in the dark and even racism – a new series from the team who brought us Victorian and Edwardian Farm reveals what it was really like digging for victory
21:33 GMT, 24 August 2012
21:33 GMT, 24 August 2012
Ruth Goodman is in combative form – laughing like a Disney villain at the so-called friends who used to sneer at her unusual hobby.
‘People were extremely unpleasant and rude because I was so interested in re-enacting history,’ she recalls of the days when dressing up in ancient clothes and eating long-forgotten dishes was just something she did for fun.
Now she’s a TV star for doing just that. ‘Suddenly they all think it’s brilliantly exciting.’
Peter, Ruth and Alex on their wartime farm
Ruth, 48, is one third of the trio whose shows have proved what a varied bunch the British television-watching public is.
Their foray into historical re-enactment for BBC2’s Victorian Farm, where they lived for a year as farmers from 150 years ago, was ‘a complete punt – a last-minute idea’ recalls her archaeologist co-star Peter Ginn, 34. ‘Even as we were making it we were wondering who would be interested in watching cranky people pratting about on a farm in the middle of nowhere.’
But Victorian Farm attracted four million viewers, and a second series, Edwardian Farm, was almost as popular while books accompanying the shows regularly top the bestsellers list.
‘For some it’s about nostalgia, for others it shows them forgotten or half-remembered ways of dealing with things,’ says Ruth. ‘Some people are interested in learning about a more simple life while others just want to laugh at the idiots with old-fashioned clothes on.’
Victorian Farm attracted four million viewers, and a second series, Edwardian Farm, was almost as popular while books accompanying the shows regularly top the bestsellers list
So it’s no surprise that they’re back for a third look at farm life from yesteryear. But for the first time – after a deluge of requests from fans – they’re delving into the edges of living memory as they re-enact life on a Second World War holding. Based on a farm in Hampshire, which has been maintained in pristine 1940s condition, this may be their most fascinating show yet.
As well as getting on with the reality of farm life, when it could take half a day just to get the tractor working, there was a very real battle waging on the home front.
Wartime Farm looks at stories debunking the propaganda myth that we were all digging for victory together. Archaeologist Alex Langlands, 35, the third member of the trio, was particularly struck by one local story of defiance unveiled by their research.
‘Every farm was inspected and everyone was expected to get their productivity up but one farmer, just a few miles north of here, decided he wasn’t going to plough up his pasture land despite all the pressure,’ says Alex.
‘The council tried to evict him, things got nasty, he fired the first shot and it ended up as an 18-hour siege until he was eventually shot dead by the police.
It caused huge problems within the agricultural community. We spoke to the son of a neighbouring farmer, who still believes that if his father had been allowed in to talk to his friend he could have found a peaceful solution. Instead, it ended in tragedy.’
They also found inspiration in the story of Amelia King, an Afro-Caribbean girl from east London who was determined to work as a land girl but was repeatedly turned down by farmers because of her colour.
It made headlines after she appealed to her local MP, and she finally found other war work. ‘We spoke to a lady called Betty Evans, who’s in her 90s now,’ says Peter, ‘and her father was the local billeting officer in charge of the land girls.
Alex gets to grips with a cockerel
Betty told us her memories of Amelia and showed us pictures of the land girls. You can see their characters shining through the pictures; it’s a wonderful piece of living history.’
The beauty of shows like Wartime Farm is they give a flavour of what it was really like for ordinary people living through the war. So we see our heroes struggling with rationing – for the Christmas episode Ruth cooks up a ‘murkey’, or mock turkey, made from sausage meat with parsnips standing in for the turkey legs.
They spent much of their time ploughing fields to produce basic items such as wheat to make the nation more self-sufficient.
One wartime legend was that busy farmers would plough at night as there wasn’t enough time in the day to do all the work. But the team didn’t find this terribly feasible. ‘It was so dark it was difficult to see what we were doing,’ says Alex.
‘There was so much mess that it took hours to clear it up. It was like two steps forward and three steps back.’ The team also try rabbit farming, which burgeoned during the war as it was lean, healthy meat and raising rabbits didn’t take up much room.
One of the show’s greatest joys is to see unexplored history being uncovered. One subject that fascinated all three presenters was the use of secret Auxiliary Units, which was rife in the countryside. Essentially a highly trained resistance army primed for a German invasion, the story of these farmer spies has only ever been a footnote in history partly because everyone involved had signed the Official Secrets Act.
‘It is only now that it’s coming out because people were afraid to talk about it,’ says Alex. ‘I got to interview a man whose father had been one of the auxiliaries. He had this box his father had given him which was full of booby traps and fuses and ignition systems. We paired him up with a historian, who had never seen the kit, and between them, as they talked, you could see they were both learning something new.’
For the show Alex and Ruth are both enlisted into Auxiliary Units, and sign mocked-up versions of the Official Secrets Act.
‘I don’t have the bits of paper with my
name on them, but to me history is about actually doing things,’ she
says. ‘To just read about things, you’re missing a trick.’
‘It was quite common that husbands and wives were recruited separately and it was only when they reached their 70s, when they finally thought they could talk about it, that they discovered other members of the family were also in the service,’ says Ruth.
Peter and Alex, both trained archaeologists, were attracted to the Farm series’ predecessor Tales From The Green Valley, which recreated a Jacobean farm in the Welsh valleys, after seeing an advert for ‘waterproof historians’.
The two, who were friends from University College London, were only meant to be the sideshow, but producers fell in love with their enthusiasm (as well as their occasional bickering).
Ruth didn’t train as a historian but after her husband introduced her to historical re-enactment (he particularly loved Tudor battles) soon after they married she became completely obsessed with the subject.
By the time she was approached by the producers for Tales From The Green Valley she was regarded as an expert in the field and was working at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, helping explain Tudor etiquette.
‘I don’t have the bits of paper with my name on them, but to me history is about actually doing things,’ she says. ‘To just read about things, you’re missing a trick.’
So would any of them like to live in any of the time periods they’ve covered There is a resounding ‘No!’ ‘I think I’d probably have a breakdown because we are not acclimatised to it,’ says Alex. ‘And I would really miss my washing machine,’ adds Ruth.
Wartime Farm, 6 September, 8pm, BBC2.