Norfolk set to feature on TV ratings topper Countryfile

Countryfile, with Matt Baker, Ellie Harrison, Adam Henson, Tom Heap and John Craven is the top TV sh

Countryfile, with Matt Baker, Ellie Harrison, Adam Henson, Tom Heap and John Craven is the top TV show. Picture: BBC/Oliver Edwards - Credit: BBC/Oliver Edwards

Our television screens are full of glitzy, high-budget blockbusters, talent shows or reality series.

Lavish costume dramas such as War and Peace and Downton Abbey or the likes of The Voice, Strictly, or I'm a Celebrity tend to hog the upper echelons of the ratings.

TV PR machines coo and tweet over the various viewing figures and ratings, highlighting successes over rival programmes.

These high-profile programmes strut their stuff like preening peacocks – but this week it has been a wise old owl that has knocked these fly-by-nights off their perch.

Amid the hype surrounding the final part of War and Peace, which followed the hugely-successful Call the Midwife – both programmes I enjoy very much – was the solid, reliable and informative rural affairs show Countryfile.

With its popular presenters combining youth, enthusiasm and experience, it quietly slipped into top spot on the ratings when all eyes were on the Russian steppes.

Last Sunday, it beat the series finale of War and Peace, Call the Midwife and the return of ITV drama Vera in the TV ratings and set a new series record in the process as the highest-rated episode in the programme's 27-year history.

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An average of 8.6 million people tuned in to Countryfile from 7 to 8pm to watch presenters Matt Baker and Ellie Harrison in an edition which focused on Tyne and Wear.

Immediately after Countryfile, BBC1 drama Call the Midwife managed 7.96 million viewers, while the final episode of War and Peace attracted 5.66 million viewers at 9pm. ITV's Vera, meanwhile, managed 4.6 million viewers.

Of course, the TV channels revel in these statistics, seemingly blissfully ignorant that the viewing figures are a fraction of what they were in the 1970s and 80s. The benchmark always seems to be Eric and Ernie, who regularly attracted 20 million-plus for the Morecambe and Wise Show.

But television viewers these days have a choice of many channels to choose from rather than just BBC1, BBC2, or ITV, plus all today's online and computer game distractions.

Countryfile remains a beacon, falling as it does in the Nicholls household in the interregnum between the Sunday night roast dinner and the big dramas, that downtime when the pots are washed, dried and put away.

It is not quite on in the background, but not armchair viewing either, yet it is also captivating with its visits to innovative farms, hillside shepherds or coastal enterprises – all inextricably linked with the land and the environment.

It contrasts so well with the programmes around and, incidentally, while I like Countryfile, I also thought War and Peace was superb, but perhaps its success may also encourage a few more to read the book too.

I suspect that there probably aren't that many of the several million viewers who have done, as it is a tome that, because of its sheer size, puts people off ever opening the first page.

It is a metaphor for over-writing but that is a great literary misconception as Leo Tolstoy's epic is far from that, with every page beautifully crafted and gripping to the finale.

My advice is to take it on holiday, give yourself time and embed yourself in its pages. Tolstoy is a wonderful writer and took me through lengthy train journeys across India (though perhaps I should have saved it for the Trans-Siberian Express).

But back to Countryfile, the appeal of which is in the gentle way it introduces the rural landscape and farming to the viewer, skilfully making what could easily be a niche subject accessible to all.

The programme has what can be described as the 'Top Gear effect' in the way Top Gear (which saw 5.3 million watch Jeremy Clarkson's final appearance) is not specifically a car programme for car enthusiasts, nor is Countryfile a farming programme specifically for farmers.

That is why both are so successful, because they span the viewing public.

Of course, Countryfile is gentler without the aggressive edge of Top Gear, and I can't for one moment imagine John Craven being remotely impolite to his producers, let alone engaging in a punch-up with one.

Countryfile's success, of course, does not signal the decline of period drama, far from it, but it does highlight the appetite for 'less sexy' telly, even in the prime slots.

Yes, Countryfile – perhaps lacking the lavish setting, costumes and budget of War and Peace – is the nation's Sunday night favourite and top of the league. In so many ways, it is the Leicester City of Sunday night viewing, and we are all fans.

And just in case all this has aroused your interest or curiosity in Countryfile, there's more reason than ever to tune in this Sunday as it focuses on Norfolk. Now watch those ratings soar even more...