This heart-warming 12-part BBC documentary series is a captivating, intelligent and entertaining recreation and examination of rural life as it was lived 100 or so years ago. It follows in the footsteps of the very successful Victorian Farm series, but has a much greater breadth of subject. Small scale farming became agricultural industry in the Edwardian era and working life extended far beyond farm boundaries. So this series explores the living and working conditions and traditions of a greater scope, to include fish farming, mining, market gardening, boat building and more.
The key to the success of the Edwardian Farm is its team of three presenters; archaeologists and historians Alex, Peter and Ruth. They attempt to live the lives of the working rural folk of the Edwardian period, and bring their professional expertise into play to explain the agricultural and household practices of the era. This makes for a far more satisfying viewing experience than watching reality show victims struggle to cope with unfamiliar routines: the Edwardian Farm team are often trying something for the first time but they do it with an informed, positive attitude and with the aim of explaining to us why it was crucial, or how it was a skilled trade, or what depended upon it - capturing the importance of lost trades and old customs which have disappeared in modern times.
The action all takes place at Morwelham Quay in Devon on the banks of the Tamar, providing a very different setting to the inland Shropshire hills of the Victorian experiment. Each hour-long episode follows the team during one month of the year so that this four-DVD set provides a complete record of a country year as it might have been lived in the early 1900s.
The filming follows each team member as they undertake the daily and seasonal tasks on the farm, and captures some of the gorgeous land- and seascapes of the area at different times of the year.
Each episode is crammed with interesting segments which highlight lost crafts, like making quicklime to fertilise the local acid soils or making a thatched hayrick to foil hungry rodents. There are some moments which are just plain daft - cleaning the kitchen before sweeping the chimney, or threatening to sweep that chimney with a live chicken! Didn't fancy the sheep's head stew much, either!
At the start of the Edwardian era there was no electricity, no running water and little mechanisation. But all creep in during the period so we see their arrival on the farm, with the world's first tractor challenging the shire horses at ploughing, or the automatic weaving machine producing a mat of thatch. Water-driven hammers flatten a billhook blade in the forge, and a paddle-steamer comes to the port. An early motor car pays a visit and one of the first aeroplanes flies by, but this is contrasted by the daily grind of milking an uncooperative goat, herding hill ponies, building barrels by hand, laying a traditional hedge, or harmlessly `harvesting' eggs from a trout for the team's fish-farm.
Unlike earlier programmes, this series taps into a culture which is just within living memory so the team can talk to people who actually lived that way and used these techniques for real, back before the Great War. It's fascinating, and all told with good natured humour - no flares of bad temper when things don't go quite as planned!
The series also aims to portray the rural hardship of the time, when farmers had to cope with poverty on the land by harvesting the bounty of the seas. So we see lobster and crab fishing, and learn how to make a coracle. Agricultural workers also turned to industry to earn their keep, so we're shown copper and tin mining, and the workings of a wool mills, while the women went into domestic service or made lace. On top of all that the series captures the rise of the railways and of leisure time and people's social activities, and the first stirrings of the tourist industry.
This all combines to produce excellent factual television, which neatly blends social history with an agricultural chronicle. It's enormously entertaining and treats its audience as intellectual equals. Initially, I wondered if there could be any more to tell after the Victorian Farm programmes - but this series proved to be even more informative and enjoyable than the last.
See also: The Victorian Farm Complete Set [DVD
]Victorian Farm - Christmas Special [DVD] [2008
]Tales From The Green Valley [DVD
]The Victorian Pharmacy [DVD