Spring has arrived in Summerstoke and with it a television crew, who are using Marsh Farm as the location for a situation comedy, “Silage And Strawberries”.
The residents of Summerstoke are excited and proud to have a film crew in their midst, particularly as the arrival of the crew will provide opportunities to make money, whether by accommodating the crew, or being employed as extras, and, maybe (as in the case of Paula Spinks) ‘discovered’. And the idea of Summerstoke -like Lacock or Port Isaacs - being put on the map as a tourist attraction silences most opposition.
As well as bracing themselves for the arrival of the television caravan, the Tucker family (Charlie, Stephen and Alison, with their Mum, Jenny, and octogenarian grandmother, Elsie) have their hands full and not just with the day to day business of keeping the farm afloat but because, on the Spring Bank Holiday, the farm opens, for the first time, to the public as a Rare Breeds centre; Stephen Tucker is planning to get married on Midsummer’s day; and Alison has to balance the competing distractions of boyfriend and A levels.
With the Tucker men at loggerheads and Stephen’s fiancée, Angela, poised to take her place as the farmer’s wife, Jenny Tucker longs for the moment when the vet, Jeffrey Babbington will whisk her away.
The film crew bring with them their own kind of mayhem and magic which affects everybody, on the farm, in the village, and at Summerstoke House where the deeply unpleasant Hugh and Veronica Lester monitor the fortunes of Marsh Farm with particular malignancy.
The producer, Marcus Steel, and the director of the series, Emma Knight, are constantly at loggerheads, particularly over the casting of Jason Hart, a well-known stand up comedian who makes no secret of his contempt for the whole project. The male star, Ben Dacres, charm personified, becomes the object of Veronica Lester’s desire; Jason Hart pursues Alison, with dire consequences; Marcus Steel falls for Isabelle, Charlie’s girlfriend; Stephen meets an old flame and his marriage prospects falter; and the survival of the farm is under threat.
Add to the mix a herd of runaway cows, a bolting ram, two large sows who go walkabout on the set, and an unknown saboteur intent on wrecking the relationship between the Tuckers and the television crew. Plus a threatened strike from the discontented villagers who are up in arms because the crew have occupied the shop, closed the High Street, beaten the locals in their pub quiz, and offended the Vicar. With both farm and filming under threat, the future of both enterprises is shaky, to say the least.
Does the TV series get made? How will Marcus and Emma resolve their differences? Will Paula Spinks have her moment of glory? Will Marsh Farm go under? Will Charlie and Isabelle’s relationship survive? Will Stephen and Angie marry? Will Alison successfully fend off the appalling Jason? Will Veronica Lester get her rich desserts?
‘I’ll tell you what I think, George, since you ask. I think you should stop moonin’ about and find yourself a wife. A farmer needs a wife – never a truer word was spoke, in my opinion. You’ve been a widower far too long. Little Richie needs a Mum, Emily needs to stop worryin’ about keepin’ house and holdin’ down that teachin’ job of hers, and young Will needs to have a bit of fun; not be shoulderin’ half the burden of runnin’ the farm. You owe it to them, George - find yourself a wife.’
Jilly’s voice quivered and broke off; for a few seconds the only sound in the room was the sharp pinging of a radiator.
Then someone sniggered, somebody else laughed outright, others joined in, and the applause was enthusiastic with relief, the script being far better than experience had taught them to expect.
‘Great. Thanks a lot. Thanks.’ Marcus Steel, loved this moment: the start of a new production, when his actors were virgin territory, their individual foibles not yet headaches, his crew were still willing and grateful for their jobs, he and the director, (Emma Knight, in this case) hadn’t yet fallen out in any major way (she would see he was right about the casting), his budget was not yet overspent, and the commissioners were still enthusiastic…
Sitting at the head of a long table in the bland, institutionalised comfort of a hotel conference room somewhere in the centre of London, he surveyed the assembled mix of performers and crew and congratulated himself. With this cast it was going to be a strong production and the director of photography, Colin James, could make the inside of a pig’s ear look attractive.
‘We’ll decamp next door for some wine and nibbles in a minute, but before we do, questions anyone?’
Jilly Westcott raised her hand.
Marcus respected Jilly. She was plump and cheerful, with a crown of white curly hair and shrewd blue eyes behind her specs. She had a great sense of fun and an infectious laugh, but he knew she was seriously committed to her work, no matter how small or trivial her role.
‘Will we get to see the other episodes before we go on location, Marcus?’
‘We’ve got the next two episodes to give you when you leave this evening, plus the outlines of the remaining three, so read them in your own time. Obviously Graham and his team will get the scripts to us as quickly as possible and we’ve built time into your schedules to have a read-through, at least, before shooting.’
Half way down the table, Ben Dacres, a handsome man in his mid-fifties, leaned forward.
‘In the opening sequence I’m described as herding cows down the High Street. I don’t mean to be difficult, but cows and I…’
He ran his fingers through his shock of greying hair and displayed the rueful smile, which during a long and successful career on television had made him irresistible to countless female viewers.
His presence in this comedy would do a lot to promote its success. He knew that, Marcus knew that; but Marcus also knew Ben was a vain, rather silly man and that other directors had found him a pain to work with.
‘How will Emma deal with him?’ he reflected. She’d not met Ben before the castings and Marcus had watched with detached amusement as Ben had trowelled on the Dacres charm.
He nodded at his director. ‘Over you, Emma.’
Emma responded. ‘Right, thanks for that Ben. This is a question that will come up time and again, I’m sure. After all, it’s a drama set on a farm and there are farm animals involved…’
Deftly dealing with Ben’s concern, she moved on to take other questions, allowing Marcus to sit back and appreciate the dextrous way in which she moved the meeting on whilst allowing some of the bigger egos to have their say. The likes of Ben Dacres would present her with few problems.
She was younger than him – about thirty- five or so. She was not pretty, exactly – her nose was too long and bony, and she was thin and wiry. Her dark brown hair was scooped up in a sort of coloured bandana around her head, and her features and her hands often looked cold and pink. But she had large, expressive eyes and when she was roused, was so animated it was hard not to be drawn along with her enthusiasm.
He’d not worked with her before, but she’d been identified as someone who produced classy, interesting work, and he’d been pleasantly surprised when she’d agreed to take on his rural comedy.
A series of six one hour programmes, it was loosely based on the activities of the Tucker family he had met some while ago. Scenting a possible successor to “The Darling Buds of May”, he had sent a writer, Graham Lawrence, to stay with them. The result, ‘Silage and Strawberries’, he’d successfully pitched as an updated, grittier version of the HE Bates books about the Larkins family.
Ben Dacres was to play the widowed farmer, George; Jilly, his mother; the lovely Juliet Peters, his daughter, Emily; Jason Hart, his older son, Will; and Harry Hobbs, the ten year old Richard.
Marcus hadn’t been keen on having a juvenile in the cast – he saw them as troublesome – but he’d accepted Graham’s arguments for including a child in what was designed to be a family show.
‘Think of the pathos, Marcus – a kid growing up amongst animals that have to be slaughtered. “Why does Buttercup have to go to market, Daddy? Can’t we keep her for ever and ever, like Grandma?” We’ll have the country weeping buckets, Marcus. Think of it…’
So Marcus had cast Harry Hobbs as the youngest son of the farmer. He was a small, fifteen year old with a freckled face, skin as smooth as a baby and huge troubled eyes that could fill with tears at the drop of a hat.
‘So what’s this place we’re going to?’ The enquiry came from Jason Hart, and his tone was prickly with suspicion.
‘Jason Hart – why on earth choose Jason Hart?’ Emma had stared at Marcus with disbelief.
The casting, up to that point, had been pretty harmonious. The casting director had done her stuff and the quality of the performers they’d had to choose from had been good. Then Emma noticed they’d auditioned nobody to play the pivotally important role of Will.
So Marcus came clean. Following his instructions, the casting director had gone headhunting in a different direction.
Emma was appalled.
‘He’s a stand-up, Marcus! He’s had no acting experience, let alone any training. You know how tight our turnaround is. What are you up to? Just because he’s big on the comedy circuit doesn’t mean he can act. We can’t afford any lame ducks, let alone one in such an important part. Are you mad?’
She was not mollified by his explanation.
She had a point, he accepted that – as director she would expect to have the casting vote over who plays what, but at the end of the day, she was an employee like anyone else, and what he said, went.
The media had a love affair with comedians – they could do anything, and they could do no wrong - so casting Jason Hart, tipped as one of the most promising young comics of the day, in a central role, had sealed the deal with the programme commissioners.
The casting agent had suggested him because not only was he a favourite on the university circuit, but he had no discernible physical defects. Yes, he was unremarkable in appearance almost to the point of being quite plain, but he was not spotty, or too hairy, or chubby, or scrawny; he was not a beanpole, nor a shorty; his nose was not too big, his hair was thick and cropped, spiked up in a fashionable way with gel; his teeth appeared to be all his own; his chin didn’t disappear under his bottom lip; his ears didn’t stick out too far; and he didn’t have a broad North Country accent but spoke with a definite estuary twang, which the casting director felt they could probably get away with even though the drama was set in the West Country.
‘Estuary is the new RP,’ she’d said. ‘It’s the accent of television, the way the kids speak today, so if he can’t manage the dialect, people will assume he’s picked it up from the telly’.
Emma had fumed, but was helpless to do anything about it; Jason had been selected…