The six hour-long episodes of the Victorian Farm series make for heart-warming viewing. The series follows a team of archaeologists and historians, helped by a cast of experts, to live on a working farm for a whole year using only the techniques and facilities of the Victorian era. The result is a thoroughly engaging, educational and entertaining programme firmly rooted in the traditions of British agriculture and rural life.
Similar programmes in the past have used untrained volunteers and subjected them to all manner of terrible traumas for the sake of dramatic TV. There is none of that in the Victorian Farm series, and it's all the better for it. The trio of main presenters are experts in domestic and agricultural history and they cheerfully tackle all manner of tasks with informed enthusiasm. To make the project feel `real' the team wear period clothes and use only the materials which would have been available in 1885.
The farm is at the Acton Scott estate in Shropshire; a breath-takingly beautiful area which provides a glorious (and frequently very cold) backdrop to the agricultural action. The Acton Scott working farm has preserved antique tools, buildings and machinery collected by the Acton family who have lived on the estate since the 12th century. The filming follows the team as they move into a Victorian smallholding which hasn't been used for 50 years, and turn it back into a working farm complete with rare breed pigs and sheep, a shire horse, dairy cows and free range fowl.
Throughout the year the team tackle the regular tasks of rural life - all without electricity or tractors, of course! They restore the cottage, thresh the wheat crop, sow a new crop, install a range for heat and cooking in the kitchen, fuel up with coal, make cider and preserves, learn how to shepherd livestock, build pigsties, tackles the four-day job that is hand-washed laundry, guides their ewes through pregnancy to lambing, fell wood to build fencing, catch rabbits for the pot, revel in the delights of ginger pigs, look after a lame horse, experience steam power, try beekeeping and bring in the harvest. Not everything goes smoothly for the Victorian farmers and we learn alongside them - how to check if a ewe is pregnant, or making lip balm from mutton fat. All of it is fascinating.
I'm pretty sure that life for a Victorian tenant farmer would have been grim, compared to the jolly atmosphere presented on the programmes - but just for once it is enjoyable to watch a series which isn't all about disasters, conflict, arguments and bad-tempered aggression. The Victorian Farm series instead shows how our grandparents could have lived off the land, how human ingenuity can tackle seemingly impossible tasks without the aid of full industrialisation, and how close we have come to losing some skills altogether.
If you really enjoy warts-and-all reality TV then this series probably isn't your cuppa tea. It is artfully crafted, with a schedule of experts to coach the team through difficult tasks. It doesn't feel as if the team are really struggling to live a 100% authentic lifestyle - I got the feeling they were probably going home most nights and weekends to 21st century comforts! - but it is NOT intended to be an endurance test. The scope of a full year spent on the farm allows the programme to demonstrate the natural progression of the seasons and the way they used to affect the men and women who lived directly off the land.
This is an absolute gem of a series; intelligent, educational and entertaining. Top marks, and I'll happily watch it all over again in a few months time.