Before Love in the Countryside, there was Sunley’s Daughter.
Back in the 1970s, Barry Cockcroft made a series of documentary programmes for Yorkshire Television portraying engaging characters living a rural life in the north of the county – the most famous of which was Too Long a Winter which starred Hannah Hauxwell farming in Baldersdale in the North Pennines.
There were also a couple of programmes set in the Cleveland Hills/Esk Dale in the north of the North York Moors. One – The Children of Eskdale – has already featured on this Blog. The other is Sunley’s Daughter, filmed in 1974. Like the other episodes the idea was to document real people’s lives in such a way as to construct a ‘drama’, a human interest story.
The Sunley family live on a tenanted farm near Gerrick – Joe Sunley, the patriarch figure, Connie Sunley, his wife, and one remaining child, Mary whose four siblings have all moved away. In this north west corner of the North York Moors it isn’t the climate that is harsh enough to make a story, instead it is the atypical life of 25 year old Mary. Mary works on the dairy farm – hard physical labour – seven days a week. She has done so for years, and will do so for years to come as long as her parents are alive and keep the tenancy of the farm. The farm can’t be passed down, it belongs to the local estate – Ringrose Wharton (now Skelton & Gilling). A farm under tenancy means there is not the incentive to invest in the farm and its machinery, even if Joe Sunley wanted to, which he doesn’t. He wants to live by the tenets of the Bible – a hard life makes that easier to do. He chooses not to have electricity, as he chooses not to celebrate birthdays or Christmas – and so neither do his family, the interviewer gets his wife to admit she misses the electricity. Joe perseveres (a biblical maxim); as Connie says ‘he’ll never give in’. Interestingly Joe doesn’t come from the expected cliché of generations of local farming stock – his father was an ironstone miner and he himself was a fitter until the Great Depression. He worked his way up using allotments for growing vegetables, rearing chickens, making ice cream in Guisborough, before finally getting himself a farming tenancy. Connie worked alongside him all the way.
What Joe, along with a number of other working farmers in the East Cleveland Hills, takes particular satisfaction in is the breeding of Cleveland Bay horses – a local native breed, highly valued today. You see Joe riding a horse, he used to plough with them; the Cleveland Bay is known as a working horse despite looking like a million dollars. The breed declined in the 20th century and during that time it was Joe Sunley and his neighbours that kept it alive. Joe Sunley is and was a renowned breeder, he sold horses to the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan, but he’s definitely not going to let that make him a fortune. The programme doesn’t explain why he does it, maybe it’s another thing to strive at, to give him a sense of achievement. His horses in particular seem extremely spirited.
According to the programme for Mary every day is the same … until she meets Jim Smith, a farm labourer on the next door farm. He asks her out, and after a year they are engaged. That’s Part One of the programme. Part Two appears to be working up to a marriage and to establishing a new future for Mary. I don’t mean to spoil the programme’s ending for you – but this doesn’t happen. Mary is a thoughtful woman, she has made sense of her life. Like her mother, she’s more passive than proactive, she wants to ‘wait and see’ and expect there will be ‘more chances’ to come for her and Jim. She’s not ready to go at that time.
One of the main themes presented is the unchanging nature of the Sunley’s lives, but this is exaggerated because around them times are changing as they inevitably do. The farm next door has a milking machine, and productive Friesian dairy cows. The Estate Manager at Skelton Castle talks about the expected ingress of Teesside and expanding urbanisation impacting on the Cleveland Hills. He recognises that small farms will become unviable and suggests Jim will need 400 to 500 acres of farmland (150 to 200 hectares) to support a family. For Jim as a farm labourer buying a farm is impossible, and estate farms to rent are few and far between – they’re trapped between lack of income and tradition. There is an opportunity for Jim to work on a ‘modern’ farm at Dunsley, near Whitby, for an 11 hour day at £31 a week (c. £225 today) but with the advantage of having a tied house for him and Mary to live in, as long as they’re married.
But it’s not all Cold Comfort Farm. Mary has been ‘outside’, to Leeds, to Middlesbrough, to Scotland; that may not seem very exotic but it’s not unusual for the 1970s. Mary is allowed to go out with Jim and to get engaged – she’s not forbidden by her father. She curls her hair and goes to the dance at the local Village Hall. The clothes and hair of the people at the dance, mainly women and girls, are very much of the 1970s even if the music is not. Mary’s father acknowledges her value, her mother says she would miss her.
It’s difficult to imagine how the programme got made. Barry Cockcroft must have been good at getting circumspect people to trust him enough to allow him to film them and to tell stories about their lives. The dialogue is encouraged, not coached – the men are much keener on speaking their minds than the women. The programme may over emphasise the romantic music, maybe it’s a bit patronising, maybe it pushes Mary a bit too much to try and get her to react. But it’s interesting for a number of reasons – reflecting farming in the 1970s, capturing real people only a couple of generations ago even if it is in a directed documentary, or maybe it’s just because of the human interest in the realistic rather than fairy tale ending. I wonder what happened to Mary and Jim – but that’s their business, not mine.