Green Imagined Land

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Episode 3 of 3

Duration: 1 hour

Ian Hislop explores the rural olden days - an idealised vision of the countryside - in this concluding film of his series exploring Britain's obsession with the past.

Despite an overwhelmingly urban existence over the last 150 years, the British have increasingly looked to the supposedly timeless, unchanging countryside. It has inspired some of Britain's greatest writers and painters, and been just as influential in popular culture. It's no accident, Ian believes, that one of the most successful First World War recruitment posters used in British cities was of thatched cottages and rolling hills - with its slogan 'Isn't this worth fighting for?'.

Ian begins by looking at the emergence of a rural fantasia in the hugely popular, excessively sentimental works of the Victorian watercolourist Myles Birket Foster. He discovers how the musician Cecil Sharp kickstarted the revival of folk music and dance in the early 20th century and how morris dancing was used to rehabilitate soldiers on the Western Front.

Between the wars, swathes of the English countryside were built over, including Sarehole, a village just outside Birmingham and childhood home to JRR Tolkien. Tolkien immortalised the struggle between a rural arcadia (the Shire) and an industrial dystopia (Mordor) in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

After 1945, Britain briefly turned its back on the rural olden days and looked to the future. Even the countryside had to be modernised, so the BBC created The Archers to promote the latest agricultural techniques. But as Archers actress Tamsin Greig tells Ian, it is now most loved for celebrating the things - like a sense of community - we feel we have lost.

Loss, Ian shows, dominates Britain's relationship with the countryside. Philip Larkin's 1972 poem Going, Going suggests our fears for its demise actually reflect our own sense of mortality. It is a theme Ian considers in Larkin's Hull and in his own childhood haven, the Sussex Downs.

To conclude, Ian reflects on the irony that some of Britain's most cherished landmarks from the olden days were once reviled. Victorian critic John Ruskin led a fierce campaign to halt the construction of the Headstone Viaduct in Monsal Dale. Today it is one of the highlights of the Peak District. Might we, Ian wonders, one day make heritage attractions of wind farms and fracking sites?

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Credits

Presenter
Ian Hislop
Executive Producer
Archie Baron
Director
Ashley Gething
Series Producer
Ashley Gething

Broadcasts

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