Thursday, August 09, 2007

There'll always be an England.

Alex Massie notes that Phil Drabble has passed away.

Phil Drabble, who died on Sunday aged 93, came to fame presenting BBC2's sheepdog trials programme One Man and His Dog, a series based upon the guaranteed stupidity of sheep.

If ever a voice were built for sheepdog trials it was Drabble's, once described as "soft as country rain, as right for the world of five-bar gates and grass-chewing as John Arlott's was for cricket". The programme, which Drabble presented for 17 years from 1975, became a surprise hit, attracting peak-time audiences of six million and making Drabble, with his tweeds and flat cap, a cult hero.

The sound of him exclaiming during a particularly slow sheep drive, "Oh noo, they're startin' ter graze. That'll be points off fer sure" was balm for the stressed-out urban soul.

Drabble had opinions to match the Rustic Character image. He freely admitted that he would be happy to conduct his own cull of ramblers ("the woolly-hat brigade"); of feminists who complained about One Man; shooting syndicates ("the Rolls-Royce and runny nose brigade"); town hall "minicrats"; and the Ministry of Agriculture ("monumental incompetents").

He naturally deplored "unnatural practices" in sexual behaviour, explaining nostalgically that: "I was raised in a generation when sodomy was a crime and homosexuals were socially ostracised."

But those who imagined that Drabble was a countryman born and bred were mistaken. For his origins were more dark and satanic than green and pleasant.

The son of a doctor, Philip Percy Cooper Drabble was born on May 13 1914 at Bloxwich in the Black Country of Staffordshire. His forebears owned a stone quarry at Darley Dale in Derbyshire and were therefore responsible, as he admitted, for "tearing the heart out of what is now the Peak National Park".

He recalled, as a toddler, being carried out to watch a Zeppelin raid on Walsall which killed the mayoress. It was said that as the unfortunate victim was a "Hun" by birth, "justice was seen to be done".

Phil's childhood was spent among derelict sites left over by the industrial revolution, catching newts, butterflies and beetles in the "swags" (mining subsidence pools) and "pitbonks" (spoil heaps) of the Black Country. After his mother died, when he was nine, he suffered badly from nervousness and found solace by sneaking out of his Edgbaston prep school at night and wandering in the school grounds.

He hated Bromsgrove School, where he distinguished himself by being the first boy to receive a flogging of more than six strokes from a headmaster famed for his ability to draw blood with four. He had to report to the school matron for two weeks to have his wounds dressed, although he took his revenge in his last term by putting itching powder on the seat of the headmaster's lavatory.

His only happy memories were of trips into the countryside with the school's natural history society and his own freelance ratting expeditions with the school dog. In school holidays he spentmuch of his time out with a local ratcatcher or rabbiting with the keeper on a local estate.

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