No Finer Life - A story of hope
Our countryside is on the verge of momentous change. The Government has set out a plan to promote sustainable farming in Britain. For more than half a century, farm policies have led to the destruction of wildlife and soils, shattering rural communities and worsening the climate crisis. Britain is officially classed as one of the world’s most 'wildlife-depleted' nations. Now at last there's a chance to end the chemical war on nature.
The Government is trialling its new scheme on a few pilot farms before a national roll-out begins. But it's unlikely these farms will match the amazing productivity of two first-time farmers – brothers George and Frank Henderson - on their small Cotswold farm in the years before World War Two. Without chemical fertilisers or pesticides, they grew more food per acre than any farm in Britain. When German U-boats threatened Britain with starvation, the government bussed hundreds of farmers onto the farm to show them how to feed the nation.
When George Henderson told the story in his book The Farming Ladder, it became an instant best-seller, inspiring thousands of war-weary young Britons with the dream of a life on the land. But their hopes were dashed when the post-war government backed mechanised, chemical farming and secretly planned the elimination of small, independent farms, the very farms that had helped win the war. Henderson warned that state intervention in farming would end in catastrophe. Today it's clear he was right. Industrial agriculture has trashed rural communities, devastated wildlife and destroyed a million farm jobs. It’s now time to restore the nature-friendly, people-centred methods he campaigned for.
In his stage play No Finer Life, award-winning environmental writer and dramatist Graham Harvey tells the story of this forgotten wartime hero. Through heart-stopping drama and some memorable songs - from song-writer Al Collingwood - the play chronicles Henderson's campaign for small farms and a land of opportunity. The story is told by Elizabeth, the young Land Army girl who's inspired to join his campaign for a fairer, greener Britain. The love that develops between the two brings a timeless message of hope to a world laid low by covid.
In the year before lockdown, No Finer Life was performed in nearly 40 theatres, arts centres and community halls across the country. The tour included a sell-out performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Other Place' in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Audience response was universally enthusiastic. Everywhere people took these characters and the forgotten events of the post-war countryside to their hearts. Many were fascinated with Henderson's 'regenerative' farming methods and wanted to know why they'd been rejected by policy-makers.
With Britain on the threshold of a new rural revolution, not-for-profit company Pasture Promise plans to revive the play and take it to new audiences across Britain. We know from the earlier tour that this story engages people with issues that would once have seemed arcane – soil fertility, carbon capture and biodiversity, all crucial for the health of our countryside and planet. At the same time there's nothing 'preachy' about our show. It's a timeless story of hope, courage and love that touches those of all ages, in town and country.
Graham Harvey discovered George's book while reading agriculture at university in the 1960s. Years later while writing for The Archers he chanced to meet George's widow, Elizabeth, who still lived on the Cotswold farm her late husband had made (briefly) famous. Fascinated by her own story, he wrote the play telling of her meeting with George and their campaign for sustainable, nature-friendly farming. No Finer Life is a love story set against a background of momentous social change and the battle to save the English countryside. More than seventy years later there's never been a greater need for George's pioneering methods.
Following Brexit, Britain is soon to see big countryside changes. In new environmental and agricultural policies, the Government has committed to a regenerative approach to farming, reversing the damage of decades. New policy objectives include increased biodiversity, soil carbon capture, climate mitigation and the building of a resilient food system. All these will mean a return to the methods pioneered by Henderson more than 70 years ago.
There's now a growing popular interest in farming generally and nature-friendly farming in particular. Think of hit TV shows like Clarkson's Farm, Our Yorkshire Farm, Winter on the Farm: Live, even All Creatures Great and Small. Plus there's the enduring appeal of old favourites like The Archers and Countryfile. All make this the ideal time for a new production of NFL, engaging a wider audience and re-igniting popular interest in Britain's farming heritage.
Our aim now is to turn No Finer Life into a full stage musical with new songs and an expanded cast. The show will be developed for both indoor and outdoor venues in autumn, 2022. This is a demanding time-table but we believe that in the present climate emergency the issues the play deals with need to be addressed urgently. This small Cotswold farm has answers to many of the nation's biggest challenges – species extinction, extreme weather events, food insecurity. At the same time the universal story of love between George and Elizabeth during an earlier national crisis provides real hope for the future.
To get this great show back on the road we'll need partners, supporters and sponsors. Our aim is to take it to food festivals and country shows; to village halls and arts centres; to theatres and community halls in towns and cities. The production will be under the banner of not-for-profit Pasture Promise Community Interest Company, on which Graham Harvey is a director. We'll be looking for opportunities to stage the show in association with other groups – artisan food producers, countryside organisations, environmental groups, sustainable farming campaigners.
It's almost a century since George Henderson and his brother Frank took over their small farm in the Cotswolds and made it famous across the world. Tragically the methods they used to build fertility and support nature were rejected by politicians, heavily lobbied by the fertiliser industry. Large-scale industrial agriculture was to be the future for Britain's countryside. But with the world now facing climate catastrophe, the Henderson farming system has come into its own. We're about to witness a reshaping of the rural landscape. Our story will make sense of these changes for a public who have been separated from the land but clearly want to reconnect with their farming heritage. Please help us make it happen.
For further information please contact Graham Harvey, Pasture Promise CIC. 07770 608065.
Graham Harvey's book The Killing of the Countryside won the 1997 BP Natural World Book Prize, the leading award for environmental writing, presented by David Attenborough.
He is co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
As director of Pasture Promise he has produced a series of documentary films on sustainable pasture-based farming.
His most recent film – Farming With Nature: The Cholderton Way – was shown at COP26.