BRADFORD-BORN Adrian Edmondson presents a new ITV series on the Yorkshire Dales. As he returns home, he tells Grace Hammond why Rik Mayall is the man to thank for his journey of rediscovery.
Adrian Edmondson is many things. Alternative comedian, who, along with Rik Mayall, Alexi Sayle and Ben Elton, caused Mary Whitehouse many a sleepless night during the 1980s; husband of Jennifer Saunders; punk revivalist with his band, The Bad Shepherds, but champion of the countryside? It seems unlikely.
However, the next time Edmondson appears on television it will be as presenter of a new series on the Yorkshire Dales. From the remote village of Ravenseat, in the north of the county, where shepherdess Amanda Owen runs a 2,000-acre farm with her husband, Clive, to Hardraw Scar and the biggest brass band concert for miles, Edmondson pulls on his walking boots to tell the stories of the people who make the place tick. He’s even invested in a flat cap for the occasion.
While Edmondson recognises he may not be a man instantly associated with rural issues, the programme was something of a homecoming.
The second of four children, Edmondson was born in Bradford, and while with a father who worked as a teacher for the Armed Forces he spent a lot of his early life on Army and RAF bases in Cyprus, Bahrain and Uganda. In between postings the family came back to Britain, returning to their home in West Yorkshire.
“I remember the buildings were all covered in thick, black soot; as a child, I never thought they were ‘dirty’; I thought they were just naturally black. It wasn’t until the big clean-up campaigns started (long after I’d left the area) that the natural beauty of the York stone was revealed. There are some magnificent buildings in Bradford – City Hall being the best. We were always told the tower was modelled on one in Florence, and it has a very different feel to a lot of municipal buildings.”
While Edmondson left Yorkshire to study drama at Manchester University, where he first met his long-time comedy partner, Mayall, at 54 he still looks back fondly on his childhood and the freedom he was allowed.
“There were still trolley buses when I was at school, and it used to cost me one old penny to get the trolley bus to school. I remember life as a kid being very different to the way it is today. I’d get home from school and I’d go straight out of the door again.
“There was a bit of disused land behind our house, full of craters, which kept my friends and I happy for hours and hours. If we weren’t there, we’d go up to the recreation ground and play cricket or football. We had a lot more freedom than the kids do these days; there was no fear and nothing much on the television.”
While the industrial skyline of Bradford provided the backdrop for much of his childhood, with open green space just a short drive away, the family regularly ventured out into the countryside and his memories of that time are unashamedly idyllic.
“My parents were very keen on days out and picnics. We spent a lot of our time visiting Bolton Abbey and Aysgarth Falls, and we used to walk across Ilkley Moor about once a week. As I got older, my dad and I would leave my mother, my older sister and my younger brothers behind and go for a romp around Malham Tarn, I remember going to the pub in Malham afterwards where we’d have... a pint of milk.
“The Dales is also like a geography text book. I spent a lot of time going there on school field trips. As I got into my mid-teens, the Dales became a regular spot for me and my mates to go camping/hiking/chasing girls/trying to get served in pubs...”
While London is his main base, Edmondson has spent much of his marriage to Saunders, with whom he has three daughters, Eleanor, Beatrice and Freya, in Dartmoor. He first fell in love with the area when he was cementing his trademark for violent slapstick in The Young Ones and filmed various Comic Strip Presents... on Dartmoor, and when the cameras stopped rolling, Edmondson couldn’t have been less like his anarchic alter-egos. He may never have made it as a gentleman farmer, but he gave it a good go.
“I still have a home in Dartmoor. We filmed a lot of the early Comic Strip Presents... series down there and developed an affinity with the place, and eventually just moved there full time, so I’m no stranger to country living. In fact, I even went as far as to own a few cows and sheep.
“I must say though, I do also like the city, and when my children grew up and left home we started spending more time in London again. Most people either prefer you to be one or the other, but I’ve always enjoyed both. I love arriving in the country – the fresh air, being able to see the horizon and the pitch black at night – but then I love arriving in the city with the noise, the bustle, the excitement. I’m lucky to be able to enjoy both.”
With his own family life based in the south of England and the demands of television work, Edmondson admits he gradually lost touch with the county of his birth and only became reacquainted with it by chance when he was out on the road with Mayall and the pair became desperate for an antidote to an endless series of anonymous hotel rooms.
“I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to the Dales with my family; in fact, it’s a place I lost touch with for a long time. It wasn’t until touring with Rik that I eventually rediscovered it. We did a lot of touring in the ’90s and early 2000s. Touring generally consists of travelling from city to city, doing the gigs, and holing up in your hotel in-between.
“After 10 years of it, I got a bit bored of being stuck in my hotel and started renting cars and driving out into the surrounding countryside of whichever town I was in. I remember being in Leeds and driving out into the Dales – it was a revelation; everything seemed new and somehow part of my memory at the same time. We’ve all seen the calendars showing the long vistas broken up with dry stone walls, but once you’re actually in the view, it all seems much bigger and more dramatic.”
When he was approached to front The Dales, the 12-part series which begins on ITV next week, Edmondson grabbed the opportunity, partly to dig a little deeper into the memories of his own childhood and partly because it gave him the chance to again dip his toe in the water of documentary making.
“I was glad of the opportunity to go and have a good look at the Dales, which seems silly I know, because I could have gone at any time. I also wanted to explore the idea of documentary film making. I’d done a couple of documentaries before, with Comic Relief, but it was something I’ve wanted to have a go at for a long time.
“It sounds glib to say I’m fascinated by people, but I am, and I really loved the idea of being able to ask people about their lives. If you go up to people in other circumstances and start asking them about their lives, you can easily be mistaken for being ‘a bit weird’.
“I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years, comedies mostly, but understanding motives and behaviour has always intrigued me. This series gave me the opportunity to explore that.”
Certainly his time in the Dales provided him with a rich resource of material. Aside from the Owens and their five children – the youngest of whom was only four weeks old when the film crew arrived – Edmondson also follows the fortunes of farmer Alex Wilkes preparing some of her cows to compete in the Great Yorkshire Show, Tom Orde-Powlett, manager of Bolton Castle, in Wensleydale, as he tries to reintroduce falconry displays and a wild boar park to the historic attraction, and the Reverend Ann Chapman, who runs four rural churches in the Dales and is a woman forever saddled with the title, the real Vicar of Dibley.
“I really loved Amanda Owen – the shepherdess I met out in the wilds of Ravenseat. She’s a terrific person, endlessly popping out babies in the remotest part of the Dales and running a sheep farm with her husband – she’s living her own dream. To some of us her dream might seem like hard work and not much fun, but she loves every minute of it, and it was great to be in the presence of someone with that kind of spirit.
“Remote communities, isolated farms, lush green valleys and limestone pavements – it’s a landscape that challenges the people who live and work there, but it’s the warm spirit of the people who live there that keeps the heart of the Dales beating.”
The series may have its focus on people, but even when there was no-one else around, Edmondson found much to absorb his interest.
“There are lots of ‘hotspots’ in the Dales – places where everyone goes, like Aysgarth Falls or Grassington, and although they are undeniably beautiful, there’s something else that I find more brilliant, and that is the light. The extraordinary thing is how the weather and the light change the landscape; you hardly need to move around at all. If you stay in the same place, the Dales will change around you.
“I remember being on the top of the Buttertubs Pass in a thick fog – suddenly, a small tunnel cleared, and down this clear tunnel we could see a village in the distance, lit up in brilliant sunshine. It was like a Whistler painting.”
It’s been a few months since Edmondson was in the Dales, and he has kept himself busy playing with his folk/punk band The Bad Shepherds, and The Idiot B*****d, a comedy band, with Phill Jupitus and Neil Innes.
It’s almost 15 years since he last went on tour with Mayall with the stage show, Bottom, and while he’s often asked, he has repeatedly dismissed any idea of a reunion, going so far to say that he has quit the comedy game. Instead, he says he’s working with Jack Dee – with whom he teamed up for Monte Carlo or Bust, which saw various celebrities travelling round France in search of objects which summed up the heart, mind and stomach of the country – on a couple of ideas for documentaries. For a man equally as comfortable in the city as he is the countryside, Edmondson’s own personal highlight of the series, an industrial feat of engineering set in one of the Dales’ most dramatic locations, should perhaps come as no surprise.
“The Ribblehead Viaduct is one of the most stunning pieces of architecture, only matched by its extraordinary location. It looks like something not from this world – like a special CGI effect for a movie. While we were there filming the sun kept going in and out, and the shadow play on the arches was ethereal and magical, like being in a giant cathedral.”
• The Dales starts on ITV on Monday, March 28, at 8pm.