This Country has been one of the outstanding success stories of British television in the past few years. The mockumentary follows two cousins, Kerry and Kurtan, who live in an isolated Cotswolds village. It gently satirises a rural environment that’s still very different from how most of us live, despite the slow spread of mainstream culture into every corner of the country.
The show’s third and quite possibly final season, which is about to draw to a close, has been as brilliant as the previous two. Its bread and butter is the skewering of a particular social class — the rural precariat. It recounts the stories of people who aren’t all that bright, aren’t always that nice, and who are held back in life by their hubris and their capacity to self-sabotage. Its trick, what has set it apart from other shows, has been to do this in such a way that it’s unmistakeably a deeply compassionate piece of television. It’s a celebration of the oddness of a corner of the world where people live limited lives, and, therefore, an insistence on the humanity and individuality of every person, whoever they are, wherever they come from. This Country exists to give a group of people the dignity of being heard.
It has not happened by chance. The show is the work of two artists whose lives were defined, in the years before their success, by the feeling that no one wanted to hear from them, and this has undoubtedly powered their writing. Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, the brother and sister who play Kerry and Kurtan as well as writing the show, made the series a long way from any TV industry influence, living in their parent’s house in Cirencester. It feels more deeply rooted in that environment than in the world of TV commissioning and celebrity casting.
Almost no one in the show was a professional actor when they started filming — the Coopers’ dad plays the dad in the show, and a group of their Cirencester friends make up most of the rest of the cast. Even one of the few professional actors involved in the core cast, Trevor Cooper, only really seems to be in it because he’s Daisy May and Charlie’s uncle (although he also happens to be a wonderful actor).
Once you know this, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this casting gives the show a loving kind of authenticity — but it’s also a mark of difference, a proud way of displaying where the show began and where its heart still belongs. Because part of what’s great about This Country is a feeling that it happened in spite of the way the world works, the world of television production in particular. So the Coopers’ use of their family in the casting also seems like a way of signalling what a triumphant act of defiance it was for them to get this show made — and a means of showing their scars.
In an interview with the Independent published earlier this year, Daisy May Cooper spoke about the poverty she and her brother lived in while they came up with This Country. “We were sharing a broken mattress at our parents’; all the springs had gone in the middle and we didn’t have any internet because we couldn’t afford it. Every morning, we walked down to the library to check our emails and Facebooks. We had nothing. The stress of it. It was so humiliating, and you have no choices when you don’t have money. Your dignity is absolutely… you’ve got no self-respect.”
Charlie Cooper speaks in the same interview of the psychological impact of the way they lived, the sense of being overlooked: “that total fear of being left behind, we felt like that for years. If you’re young and working class here, it’s so difficult to escape. There just aren’t any opportunities. You see so much about inner city poverty and inequality, but you don’t see anything rurally and it’s so fucking difficult.”
Many artists tell this story about their early career — years of struggle, a sense that no one’s speaking for you, a tough start you have to fight your way out of. In some ways, it might be an essential narrative — why would you need to write anything, if the story you wanted told was already out there? But Daisy May and Charlie Cooper’s story has particularly interested me in the years since This Country first aired, because they had to overcome unique challenges for their voices to be heard.
Charlie Cooper alludes to this when he says there’s so much said “about inner city poverty and inequality”. This is a complex point that’s worth unpicking. The issue is not that urban experiences of want are adequately understood and documented. While it is true that producers, who live and work in overwhelmingly urban areas and who make work for people based overwhelmingly in urban areas, do focus more on the problems they see every day, and the problems they think will interest their viewers, you couldn’t suggest for a moment that means urban inequality is adequately represented.
The central problem with British culture today is that everyone with a household income of under £80,000 can legitimately claim to be underrepresented. This is a product of the fact that producers know people like looking at nice, aspirational houses and families, and encourage stories to be set among them. (And possibly that writers get lazy once they’ve had a hit and got themselves a mortgage – trace a writer’s career, and you’ll often find their work peters out into dinner parties and marital strife when the money starts coming).
If it is true that rural experience is even more sparsely documented than city life, the reason for that lies partly with the gatekeepers — very often, rural storytelling falls into the ‘escapist’ strand of a TV channel’s programming, so that a venture down the B roads also becomes a venture back in time, allowing viewers to long for the world before the petrol engine in a vaguely queasy, Brexity way, and leaving the people who live down those same roads today unnoticed and unspoken.
In recent years there’s also been a complacency about how stories are sought out, which has stifled a lot of talent. I remember hearing a literary manager from a major theatre tell a packed room 10 years ago: “I think we can be pretty certain there are no mute inglorious Miltons”, and feeling like the industry I wanted to work in had it all the wrong way round — that the point of finding stories wasn’t waiting for them to arrive through the post, but getting out into communities you wanted to hear from, and identifying potential, and trying to develop it. In the intervening decade that’s become a mainstream view, and the complacency I heard in that room is thinner on the ground among the people who commission stories. But it will have held back the Coopers in the meantime, all the same.
The bigger issue for artists in rural areas, though, which is much harder to solve, is that they tend to live further away from artist development schemes, and so tend to find it harder to access them, grow as storytellers and emerge into the public discourse. Even once a belief in developing voices is established, it can still be hard to unearth people if they live miles from anywhere. A young artist growing up in a city can get to a youth theatre or a writers’ group in an hour, most nights of the week, and see a decent piece of theatre every night if they can find cheap tickets.
That’s not true for any village kid. The courses are fewer and further away, public transport is dire and so are the shows at the local theatre, which play mostly to grandparents, and are inevitably shaped by the tastes of a vanished world. When I was growing up in Wiltshire, I couldn’t find any courses or work, paid or unpaid, and the endless light comedies and bad revivals available to me at the theatres in that region bore no relation to the art form I was interested in, the serious theatre.
So I’d get the train to London to try and access opportunities and see good plays. I’d stay out all night to get two days in the city, so I could do more before heading home and stretch my money further. I’d walk round till dawn to keep warm, or sleep on sofas or in parks or behind bins or in empty office buildings; once, I spent a few hours huddled in an old coal cellar that had been converted into a fuse box cupboard in Hackney, because I felt unsafe on the street. If you live in Hackney you just don’t have to do that.
This is the extra hurdle the Coopers had to get over — not only were they working-class kids who felt no one spoke for them, they also had a much longer bus journey between them and any goodwill or support.
Having encountered those difficulties that a rural upbringing puts in your way if you want to be listened to, I have found watching This Country a powerful emotional experience, which I’ll miss very much if they don’t make any more.
I’ve rejoiced at each episode because it’s good TV — but I’ve also loved the miracle of it being there at all. I can only hope that its success will encourage other artists growing up rurally to keep fighting to be heard — and producers to keep looking behind the hedgerows to see what might be there.
For those cooped in self-isolation over the next few weeks, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.