GRAHAM Harvey is best known as the agricultural story editor of The Archers – but he is so much more than a contributor to the world’s longest running radio soap opera.
The clue is in the word “agricultural” because Harvey is passionate and knowledgeable about farming – real farming, farming that cares about the soil, the land, the animals, the wildlife, and the people who make their living on the land.
He demonstrates this passion and his philosophy of farming in his new play, No Finer Life, which came to Sherborne’s Digby Memorial Hall at the end of its autumn tour, as the guests of the town’s CPRE branch.
It is a one-woman show, that tells the true story of a man who rented a small Cotswold farm with his brother, who fought for traditional small farmers – the people who had fed the country through the war – and who remains an inspiration to traditional family farmers and to the new generation of young people who are making a living on the land.
No Finer Life – the words are part of the refrain in a song by composer-musician Alastair Collingwood, which runs through the play – is told in retrospect by the elderly Elizabeth Henderson, looking back to the last years of the Second World War when, as a teenager from Somerset she went to work as a farming pupil on George Henderson’s Oathill Farm.
George was already something of a celebrity. In 1944 he had published a book called The Farming Ladder which sold 100,000 copies. It was the story of two young London brothers who in 1924 scraped together the money to rent a small farm, at a time when agriculture was going into deep recession. Their careful husbandry of the land and their livestock turned the farm into one of the most productive in England. By the start of the war, it was attracting bus-loads of farmers keen to see how farming could continue in a time of national crisis.
George was an organic farmer by instinct, by an absolute conviction of the need to keep land in good heart and the soil well fed by natural matter (manure) – Elizabeth recalls the hard work of shifting muck heaps – and the benefits in terms of productivity of crops, healthy animals, wildlife and a flourishing ecology.
He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, threatening to throw a pushy fertiliser salesman onto the muck heap, tackling the post-war Farming Minister over his support for subsidies to enable farmers to buy fertilisers (to increase production) and challenging farmers who were ditching old but successful farming methods in favour of the new chemical systems.
QED, you might say, if you share Graham Harvey’s concern about the damage these chemicals have done to the soil, the loss of meadows, wildlife, birds, flowers and insects from the countryside.
It’s all there in No Finer Life – but don’t imagine for a moment that it is a 90-minute polemic. It’s a hugely entertaining play, with laughs, tears, heart-stopping moments, and a host of characters from George, Elizabeth and George’s crusty difficult mother to the self-important government minister and Jack, the dashing young airman whose passion to become a farmer after the war keeps him going through D-day and the long journey to victory in Europe.
Every character – including Elizabeth at 19 and 90 – is played by Rebecca Bailey, a multi-talented actress and singer, with a host of expressions and voices. She is a veteran (young, admittedly) of the Edinburgh Fringe.
The play is ably directed by James Le Lacheur, and Dogwood Productions is planning another tour in the spring – watch the FTR for news of any future dates in our region.
• Graham Harvey has written more than 600 episodes of The Archers. His plays include The Darkness of the Sun, the story of writer Henry Williamson, and his books include The Killing of the Countryside and The Carbon Fields.
Pictured: The real Elizabeth Henderson meets actress Roberta Bellekom, daughter of Dogwood producer and former director of The Archers, Anthony Bellekom; George Henderson’s book which inspired it all.