Counting on sheep

26 May 2016

1:00 PM

26 May 2016

1:00 PM

Going Forward (BBC4, Thursdays) is a BBC comedy about the continuing adventures of Kim Wilde, the fat, cynical but lovable nurse character played by former nurse Jo Brand. Now she has quit the NHS and is working in the private sector for a company called Buccaneer 2000 — which is, of course, exactly what a healthcare company would call itself in order to allay potential criticisms that it was backward-looking, heartless and rapacious.

This is one of the series’ big problems. It wants to be naturalistic, almost fly-on-the-wall, observational comedy, with the dog wandering casually in and out, and parents and kids saying just the kind of things we all do in real life. But it just can’t resist sneaking in the sledgehammer in order slyly to bash you over the head with anti-austerity politics so strident they make John McDonnell sound like Ayn Rand.

Poor old people get terrible bed sores. Some old people are so poor they can’t afford to buy postage stamps for the birthday cards of the son who never visits them. Oh and by the way, it’s a racist misconception that all old people from the Indian subcontinent have tight family groups capable of caring for them. You can just imagine the BBC’s commissioning editors whipping themselves into a frenzy of virtuous ecstasy as they came upon each of these incisive observations in the script, probably pinning on a gold star like they do at primary school every time a ‘student’ mentions Mary Seacole.

But what about the rest of us, sitting at home, wanting a bit of entertainment? Do we get any say in this? And isn’t there something ever so slightly puke-inducing at being given moral lectures by comics who — thanks in good part to their cosy, symbiotic relationship with the showbiz NHS that is the BBC — earn in a year a good three or four times what even the Prime Minister does? Couldn’t they just lay off the politics, once in a while, and try working on the comedy?

Tell you what you should watch, though, if you haven’t already: Addicted to Sheep (on BBC4 catch-up). It’s a documentary about sheep farming in the north Pennines, briefly shown in cinemas last year, and is so politically incorrect I’m surprised it wasn’t classified as right-wing hardcore porn and slapped with an 18 certificate.

Some examples: smiling, happy children — all of them white — being taught to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at their primary school; children being raised in an environment consisting almost entirely of health-and-safety risks — butting rams, freezing cold, quad bikes, slurry; children exposed to violent death (stillborn lambs) and dismemberment (a turkey being dressed in front of them by their mother). You really don’t need government directives or handouts to lead an enjoyable, fulfilled life (it didn’t need to tell us, preferring merely to frame the shot and let the subject speak for itself), only to be hardworking, self-reliant and positive.

Apart from the amazing travelling X-ray machine that the farmers use to check whether their ewes (‘yows’ as they pronounce them) are pregnant, the world depicted in Magali Pettier’s remarkable, beautiful, affecting film probably hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages.

It focuses on Tom, a tenant farmer who, as the title says, really is addicted to sheep — in this case the pleasure of selectively breeding Swaledales in order to get the best possible price for them at market and the challenge of keeping them alive when, as Tom says, all any sheep wants to do from the moment it’s born is to kill itself as quickly as possible.

Living, as I do, surrounded by these incredibly stupid creatures, I know whereof Tom speaks. Lambing season makes Game of Thrones look like Mary Poppins: lambs with their eyes pecked out by ravens; lambs half-eaten by the fox as they emerge from the womb; a lamb caught in the fence, parched to death, just tantalising inches away from the stream that must have made its last hours an agony. As with the farming parents in that documentary, I’m delighted when my kids see this stuff, because I want them to know where meat comes from and to liberate them from any squeamishness or animal-rights nonsense they might pick up from our decadent, ignorant culture. Addicted to Sheep should be shown in all schools and screened every night as an antidote to made-for-townies-by-townies drivel like Countryfile. Millionaire Jo Brand and her millionaire co-star Omid Djalili should watch it too. There’s lots of poverty in it: real poverty. I’m sure they’d find it very edifying.

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