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RIVER COTTAGE AUTUMN
From beetroot ice cream to venison roly polys, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall leads us on a delicious and cosy celebration of the very best produce of the season.
The highest rating programme across Channel 4, BBC2 and Five, in its week of broadcast.
BEHIND THE SCENES
I love food programmes. I love watching them. I love trying the recipes. And I love making them. As a break from the intensity of documentary production or the continual quest for ‘jeopardy’ in features shows, there’s nothing better than soaking yourself in the warm televisual bath of food programmes. No agenda, no edge, just wall to wall loveliness. Yum.
For all that, there is always the possibility that life can be made more stressful than it should be by the ego and attitude of an over-inflated presenter. I didn’t know what to expect of Hugh. Here is a man who is selling us a beautiful vision of a simple existence, but one that could make very few of the rest of us any money. Would he and River Cottage turn out to be just a cynical money-spinner for an Eton posh-boy-done-good?
The answer is no. Yes, the brand has made a lot of money. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Good ideas make money. But this idea was born out of a true belief in a way of living. If Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was a stick of rock, he would have the word integrity running through him. And I liked that. A lot.
One of the perks of food programmes is that you tend to eat very well. Going into this one, I was nervous. I promised Hugh on day one that I would try everything he cooked. But like a hairy Heston, Hugh has a habit of coming up with recipes that we would never make ourselves. Ok, you may not need an industrial supply of liquid nitrogen for the stuff he makes. But when did you last try crispy pig’s ear, sea buckthorn jelly or vermin stew?
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“There’s an obvious solution to the grey squirrel problem that is destroying swathes of woodland” says Hugh. “Develop the public’s appetite for squirrel”. Obvious – not the word I’d have gone for. Then again, it turns out that grey squirrel tastes rather good.
I filmed a lot of creatures getting bashed on the head while making these shows. It’s the “approved official way” of ‘despatching’ a squirrel, and apparently the quickest and most humane way of getting a fish onto your plate.
It was the fishing sequences that I enjoyed the most. The grayling scene was a great example of why this sort of programme is so very nice. In any other area of primetime telly the director’s job would be to harness moments of emotion, and to find editorial points that create peaks of tension. In River Cottage the most dramatic it ever gets is the onset of rain. No whizz-bangs, no tears, no screams. Oh look, there’s a rainbow. How beautiful – we’ll make something of that. You don’t get that on Panorama.
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I’m in danger of becoming spokesman of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fan club here, but the grayling sequence properly cemented my respect for the man. It had been a very long day, and a frustrating day too, as the fish clearly hadn’t read the call-sheet. After twelve hours of filming, it eventually turned up, but it was getting dark and it looked like our plans to have Hugh cook the fish would be scuppered. Both Hugh and I were tired and it never crossed my mind that he would want to do anything other than head home at this point. But Hugh had read the call-sheet and he knew we hadn’t got everything done…
“I’m up for it if you are” he said. I don’t know any other presenter of his experience and standing who at that point in the day would have opted to keep going for two more hours to get everything in the can. We did it and, lit by the headlights of two vehicles, I think the resulting scene has a really lovely character to it.
The same could not be said for the scene that played out on a boat in the English Channel on the day we went fishing for bream.
I love self-shooting, and I’d take on anyone who argues that removing a crew automatically damages the look of programmes and the intimacy of relationships with contributors. But it turns out that self-shooting has one enormous advantage that it’s impossible to argue with. If you’re the one holding the camera, there is nobody around to film your utter humiliation as you painfully and continually lose control of your stomach over the side of the boat. For four long hours. That’s one clip the office Christmas DVD will have to do without!
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The only brief I was given by the exec producer when I started this job was to make sure the series looked great. Now, I pride myself on my camera-work and composition, and it’s my belief that the best shots are found at the long-end of the lens where the depth of field is shallowest and everything looks gorgeously compressed. But it turns out that the combination of a very small boat + a very rough sea + a determination to hold long-end shots steady while your face is buried in the viewfinder with no reference to the horizon = a recipe for sea sickness. And no amount of clever seasoning can make that one taste good.
As you watch this, spare a thought for the horror that was occurring off camera between almost every shot. Sixty minutes away from land, if someone had offered to kill me I may well have thanked them for their compassion. But nobody offered, so the only option was to battle on and bring home the sequence.
But this is the stuff that makes telly such a great industry to work in. It gives you experiences that you’d never otherwise get, and stories that have the ability to liven up any dinner party. Although, for some reason, as an accompaniment to the main course, that one doesn’t always go down too well
Series Director/ Camera: Nic Guttridge
Series Producer: Sara Woodford
Duration: 4 x 60 mins
Production company: Keo films
First broadcast: October 2008 at 8pm