Durham homecoming dream of TV's Matt Baker
PUBLISHED: 08:33 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:07 20 February 2013
Matt Baker was thrust into the limelight when he became a presenter on the TV children's favourite, Blue Peter. Today, he's still at the top of the ratings charts as co-presenter of the programmme, Countryfile. Andrew Smith talks to him
Top Gear has become a kind of laddish phenomenon since Jeremy Clarkson & Co hauled it out of the clutches of motoring anoraks for whom pulling power was all about engine capacity rather than the ability of the wheels to attract the opposite sex.
While delighted and surprised at the cult following the programme has developed among millions of viewers, BBC bosses have worried about where they might find the next Top Gear in terms of a programmes all-embracing popularity and viewer appeal.
Now they think they might have found it, not in the edgy, sometimes destructive style of the challenging Top Gear or X-Factor, but in the genteel and unthreatening surroundings of the English countryside.
Countryfile, now anchored on the prime-time Sunday teatime slot on BBC One, started well in terms of viewing figures and it just gets better and better.
And much of it - although hed probably disagree - is down to the ever-popular North East-born presenter Matt Baker and his co-stars Julia Bradbury and John Craven.
After almost 20 years as one of those nice but easily missable daytime programmes, the decision was taken to slot it into Sunday teatime ahead of the Antiques Roadshow, since when it has become essential viewing.
When we moved to teatime a year ago, we immediately had 6.4 million viewers, says Matt. Last month, the viewing figures showed we were watched by 7.3 million viewers. Its fantastic and it really has taken everyone by surprise.
At the end of March, the programme, which already has its own glossy magazine, entered the DVD market with a 70-minute special called Countryfile: Favourite Places.
Julia Bradbury can be seen taking the plunge coasteering off the Pembrokeshire coast and John Craven goes in search of beavers in the Scottish countryside.
Matt, not surprisingly, heads straight back to the North East to extol the virtues of the Durham Dales, where his family still farm and where, one day, he hopes to return to live with his own wife and children.
The family farm is to the west of Durham City on the very edge of the Dales, he said, but I know the Dales really well and its great to be able to bring a camera crew back up here to explore and meet people in every nook and cranny of the North East countryside.
I work away from home filming Countryfile for three days every week and, although the programme is based in Birmingham, were hardly ever there. We go wherever the filming is taking place, and thats everywhere in the British Isles.
I still have a dream of moving back to the North East but for the moment it suits work and my family (he has two young children) to live in Hertfordshire, which is pretty central and easy to get out of and come home to.
Its a balancing act between living where you really would like to live and finding time to spend with the family and, at the moment, I can find more time for the children living where we do.
Matt, once an international junior gymnast, became the daredevil action man of childrens television when he dropped out of university to take a job as co-presenter of Blue Peter. A natural, easy-going broadcaster, he became one of the programmes best-loved and most versatile presenters, gaining two BAFTA awards as Best Childrens Presenter and a Royal Television Society Award.
He left Blue Peter after seven years in 2006 and has since presented programmes including Crufts, One Man and His Dog and Animal Rescue, but it is on Countryfile where he really seems to have come home.
My background, coming from a farm in Durham, clearly was a factor in me being offered the programme, he says. I have an empathy with the farming community and know from very personal experience what its like living and working in the countryside. The people seem to regard me as one of their own.
I think the programmes success is that it makes connections with the viewers. Its as real as it can be and very topical. Its almost totally unscripted - the people we meet as we go around talk openly and frankly about their lives, their work and their worries. Its very real.
I absolutely love it. Its demanding in terms of time away from home and there are the spin-offs to deal with, like the Countryfile magazine and my radio work in the rural affairs department of Radio 4, but I couldnt wish for a better job. And its so pleasing that the viewers love the programme too.
Countryfile: Favourite Places
The DVD Countryfile: Favourite Places features a special edition of the programme broadcast in January 2010. In addition to their personal choices of favourite place, Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury visit the Isle of Man, where they look at traditional farming, the coastline and the TT races.
There are also visits to the Lake District and Peak District, among many other places, celebrating the rich diversity of the UK's wonderful landscape.
Matt and Julia are joined on Countryfile by John Craven who, like Matt, also became a familiar TV personality on children's television, presenting Newsround. Julia formerly presented the series, Wainwright Walks, following the guidebooks of celebrated author and artist AW Wainwright, in the Lake District.
The Countryfile DVD's catalogue number is AV9789 and its RRP is 16.99.