Its Sunday lunchtime. Probably in winter. From the kitchen, smells of roasting meat and potatoes, bubbling gravy, the windows steaming up. Dad has been pottering around outside in the cold all morning, doing odd jobs but now, while Mum cooks, he is in the living room in his chair in front of the television, still in his baggy green jumper, which is gradually becoming more hole than jumper. The Sunday People is crinkled and pages turned until the familiar tune begins:
Say what you will, the countryside is still
the only place that I can settle down
troubles are so much rarer out of town
Recorded by Max Bygraves in 1956 for the film Charley Moon, it was the original theme tune to Out of Town, a programme which, according to Television and Radio 1978 ‘whether it shows the shoeing of horses, angling or rabbiting, … presents a complete and unsentimental picture of country life in all its aspects.’
Unsentimental I am not so sure, but whether it was fishing for tench, making cart wheels, baskets or floats, putting sheepdogs through their paces, or, the favourite, Appleby Horse Fair, it was gentle and strangely hypnotic and as ‘Sunday’ in the seventies as meat and two veg. And it was Dad’s favourite programme. Perhaps it was awakening the same kinds of feelings as it did with Dad in homes up and down the country, people whose lives had moved away from their beginnings and now worked in offices, but who treasured the fields and pastures and the skills you needed to make a living from them.
Dad wasn’t a countryman as such, though he grew up in the country (son of an oft time farm worker and bringer home of rabbits and pheasants that might not strictly have belonged to him) and has always loved its ways and traditions. And neither, strictly speaking, at least to begin with, was its presenter, the pipe puffing Jack Hargreaves, who, you have guessed it, was born in Palmers Green in 1911.
The Hargreaves family were originally from Huddersfield, where father James Hargreaves established his business first as a commercial traveller and ultimately as a wool manufacturer. The Hargreaves’ were not short of a bob or two, and James and his milliner wife Ada set up a second home in London so as to be nearer business contacts and better healthcare and prospects before starting their family. By 1908, when they had their first son Ronald, later an eminent doctor, they were living in Eaton Park Road but by 1911 they had set up home at 48 Fox Lane. It was there that John Herbert (Jack) was born on 31 December.
Jack had a difficult childhood. He was spirited and rebellious and unable to get along with his father, eventually resulting in an unsatisfactory and inconclusive trip to a psychiatrist. But life began to improve when his mother arranged for him to have a holiday with family friends the Pargeters at Burston Hill Farm near Aylesbury. Jack enjoyed the rough and ready country life, hunting, shooting and fishing and the farm became his second home. Back in London, knuckling down to school at Merchant Taylors proved a rude awakening but he was still able to gain a place at Kings College to study veterinary science before disaster struck: a collapse in James Hargreaves’ business and Jack’s plans to marry meant that Jack had to abandon his studies and get a job – writing advertising copy for Spratts Dob Biscuits at Unilever before moving into the theatre, variety and then radio and finally TV.
In his biography of Jack, writer and colleague Paul Peacock notes that though many people would assume that Jack found fame in the 60s and 70s, he first achieved recognition before the second world war at the Independent Broadcasting Company where he was head of Universal Programme Productions, twinning revenue opportunities for products like Horlicks with broadcast output. All through his time at IBC he also managed key accounts for a number of large companies, though Peacock says that there were the occasional blips – like having to pull an entire newspaper print run carrying one of Jack’s ads which innocently announced ‘the biggest development you’ll ever see in trousers’.
After the war Jack edited the magazines Lilliput and Picture Post, before being recruited by the National Farmers Union to set up a new information department. It was a journey to Southern Television to give them a piece of his mind about an inaccurate programme on meat marketing that gave him his next big break, headhunted by top man Roy Rich to become programme maker and controller of a new production, Farm in the South. An extra curricular fishing trip with the cameraman led to Out of Town’s predecessor Gone Fishing in the 1960s and the rest, as they say, is history.
By then of course, Jack was long gone from Palmers Green, and truth be told, was probably little ever here, though in his day Palmers Green was still being built and there were still some fields to roam north of Bourne Hill. But he was ever present in our living rooms in Out of Town and in the children’s programme he devised and presented with Fred Dineage ‘How!’ which ran until 1981.
For my Dad, Out of Town only got better when the theme changed from Max Bygraves to the lovely ‘Improvisacion, A Granada, Cantiga Arabe’ written by the Spanish composer Francisco Elxes Torrega. A clip of shire horses gently nodding along pulling a plough and that music, a little slice of country life, and then Sunday lunch. Good times eh Dad?.