River Cottage Australia screens Monday and Thursday nights on SBS.
A TV show can take you in unexpected directions. You may think you know how it will roll out, but there will always be a surprise or two.
And, when you add farming and cooking to the mix, you can never be quite sure where you will end up.
Like its UK parent, River Cottage Australia was always going to be about sustainable living at its core: turning a small coastal landholding into a property that grows fresh produce that is then cooked and served to friends and family – all beautifully contained in single episodes.
Viewers follow host Paul West on his journey from chef to self-sustainable farmer as he grapples with the seasons, planting, livestock and getting to know his local community.
And, while West is undoubtedly the lynchpin of the show, one of the best surprises is the emergence of the real star – his sidekick and companion, farm dog Digger.
Making his debut early on in first series, this endearing border collie pup engages in some scene-stealing action as he grows up and before you know it, he’s hogging the camera.
Indeed, West admits that during the filming the show, Digger ended up becoming the bigger star, which doesn’t surprise him at all.
“We still can't believe how lucky we got with Digger,” he says. “He's such a great character on the show, and somehow he just fit in with everything so smoothly.”
“I know he's a bloody great dog – arguably the world's best,” he says. “So I can't blame everyone else for sharing my enthusiasm for him.”
Digger was actually recognised by the public before West was. He laughs when telling the story.
“I visited my family in Newcastle and we were on the dog beach (Horseshoe Beach), just on the mouth of the harbour, and we met some people who went, ‘Oh wow, it's Digger… and you’,” he says. “Then they wanted a photo with Digger of course.”
“Whenever I do an event, or go anywhere, usually the first question from the crowd is ‘where's Digger?’, or ‘Did you bring Digger?’; ‘How's Digger?’”
West found Digger the old-fashioned country way – via a noticeboard on the IGA supermarket in Narooma, near where the farm is located.
“He was from a backyard litter. He wasn't off a farm; he was actually from a backyard,” he says.
“He was also the first litter that I saw. It wasn't like, ‘oh I got to look around for the perfect dog’. I saw the litter advertised on the IGA noticeboard and I went and looked at them. I said, ‘yep, he's good’. Done.”
Digger isn’t the only animal on the farm, of course. He shares the limelight with chickens Rosie and Ruby. A few pigs and a dairy cow join the team as the series unfolds.
And while a working dog is central to life on a farm, West admits that Digger is really more of a house dog than a true farm dog. He sleeps in the cottage and gets a lot of human attention.
However, there is no denying that he works hard for the cameras.
“I think that's probably where he truly became a working dog,” says West. “We filmed so intensively ... We were filming all day every day for season one.
“I think that fired his working instincts. He saw me and he saw the cameraman, and they do have an instinct to work. So he figured out the filming process pretty quickly, and actually really played up to it. He's a pretty camera-savvy dog is Digger. He certainly knows how to play up.
“He did some cute things, like a bit of a yawn or a stretch or cock his head at the right time. He was very sensitive to the camera being on him. He felt the camera pan to him, and he'd always do something right on cue.
“So he’s not real good at rounding up sheep, but when it comes to award-winning cutaways, Digger has got that in the bag.”
West and his family are not living at the South Coast at the moment – the farm was sold at the end of season four. He and his wife still own their own house in the area and hope to return when their children have grown a little. They chose to return Newcastle to be closer to their family, who can offer practical support for his wife when he travels with his work.
“The plan is to get back there as soon as possible of course, but for the moment, we needed a bit of time away just to reflect and regroup, and realise how much we bloody miss it down there,” says West.
And, yes, Digger is still with him. “He stays with me the whole time,” he adds. “So wherever I go, he goes.”
River Cottage Australia is on SBS Monday nights 7.30pm and Thursdays 8.35pm (NOTE: A gripping new SBS drama, Sunshine, kicks off on Wednesday October 18 and continues Thursday October 19, Wednesday 25 October and Thursday 26 October, so River Cottage will run on Monday nights only for those two weeks.) If you miss an episode, catch up on SBS On Demand.