Doing the ironing the other week, I found myself watching, with a kind of morbid curiosity, ITV’s Ladette to Lady. It was predictably hideous, with eight Australian girls attending etiquette school Eggleston Hall engaging in drunken antics all over the place, but what made my heart really sink was the trail for the following week’s programme, which announced that the school would play host to the Zetland Hunt. One of the biggest problems hunting faces is its public perception, unable to escape from the image of red-coated toffs riding roughshod over people’s land.
My blood frequently boils when hunting scenes are shown in television dramas and films because they are never accurate. I remember watching an episode of Heartbeat (my Sunday evening escapism!) about a hunt that was upsetting a farmer because the mounted followers kept galloping over his crops. They showed a meet and the hunt gathering for a group photograph that had not one single foot follower or terrierman in it. Later, the huntsmen jumped a fence at the same time as all the hounds, with the members of the field bunched up behind and only just missing stepping on a hound—a cardinal sin that in any real hunt would have them sent home.
Such scenes perpetrate the myth of arrogant, bloodthirsty, self-centred hunt people, and because they are seen by millions and millions of perhaps ignorant people, they have the potential to be extremely damaging. The Labour MP who admitted in the papers shortly after the ban that it was nothing more or less than class warfare no doubt believes that such scenes are entirely accurate.
A friend of mine who fulfils the unusual and possibly unique role of being an MFH and a film and theatre agent, scheduling New York meetings with the likes of Alan Rickman around hunting, told me once how difficult it was being on film sets that have anything to do with hunting because he always wanted to intervene. ‘The trouble is, directors always want hounds, huntsmen and field galloping along all bunched up together so they can get them all in shot at once, which isn’t entirely realistic.’
I confess I did watch the second episode of Ladette to Lady, and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. The people who came off worse were, in fact, the etiquette teachers at Eggleston Hall. The ladettes gamely had a go at skinning fallen stock and handing round stirrup cups (sadly, again, not many foot followers made it into shot), and one had a fantastic day riding out with the hunt. As the girls frantically mixed punch and made sausage rolls, the etiquette teachers warned them ‘if the hunters don’t get their food quickly, they’ll complain’.
Actually, that would be the height of bad manners! People who host meets do a tremendous job, and no hunt follower would dream of marching up to their host (or, as the Eggleston mistresses would no doubt have it, clattering up on horseback and not bothering to get off) and saying: ‘You there, I didn’t get enough food!’
The girl chosen to ride had a wonderful time, and at one point, held up a small Australian flag as she galloped along. The hunt followers who told the headmistress of Eggleston Hall they thought it hilarious looked abashed themselves when she reacted in outraged horror and sent the offending girl away from the party. It may not have been quite the done thing, but it was merely high spirits and the flag was so small it wouldn’t even have spooked the horses. Such a visitor might have got a nudge from the field master not to do it again, but no more! Fortunately, despite the teachers doing their best to make the hunt members look stuffy and stuck-up, they actually came across as enormous fun and very welcoming to the ladettes—as no doubt they were. Finally, a triumph for hunt PR!