For those who expend a lot of energy dodging The Archers, the task will be more difficult for a bit. The radio soap opera that genuinely divides the nation, far more alarmingly than the infamous Marmite, has reached another hefty milestone that cannot be ignored. The longest running drama in the world is 70 years old on 1 January.
A series of special programmes have already begun to air, culminating in the anniversary episode itself on New Year’s Day.
Like the weather and the railways, down the decades this beacon of BBC Radio 4 output has provided a handy conversation point. And somehow no listeners, not even among the diehard audience, will ever completely agree on its charms. While some live only to hear the voice of Jennifer Archer or Lynda Snell in full vent, other equally ardent fans take these fussy matriarchs on sufferance and only tune in for a dose of the hapless Eddie Grundy, Jolene the big-hearted barmaid; Lilian, the effervescent lush; or Jazzer, the Scottish ne’er do well.
Professional humorists, not least the Guardian’s Nancy Banks-Smith and Radio 4’s John Finnemore, have made golden Ambridge hay with the ludicrous storylines and mannerisms of the show. Those who count themselves Archers refusniks will especially relate to Finnemore’s parody of the glacial plot progression and of the challenge of distinguishing one perennially exhausted farmer’s voice from another’s.
And yet. Where else but in Jane Austen do moral niceties regularly rub shoulders so compellingly with the big questions of love, family, money, nature, honesty and death? Tim Bentinck, who plays David Archer, once said the value of the show was the way it gave its listeners “life, but with the temperature turned down”. His argument appears to be that, at least under the benign dictatorship of the show’s former editor Vanessa Whitburn which ended seven years ago, The Archers offered welcome relief from all the gritty emoting of audio plays and from grim news headlines.
But this idea of the show as a place of refuge does not – rather like the banks of the River Am that fateful week when nowhere else in Britain flooded – hold water. There have been countless moments of both histrionic excess and touching emotional turmoil. Nigel Pargetter’s blood-curdling cry as he fell from the roof of Lower Loxley, the explosion at Grey Gables, Kirsty’s abandonment at the altar and Helen’s domestic abuse at the hands of a phoney nice-guy have each played havoc with the teatime airwaves in just the last decade.
The show is now so old that its lore and traditions rival the country code itself. It has tried to move with the times, though. It is common knowledge it started out as a way to communicate important information to Britain’s farmers, but the fact it was later in the vanguard of the age of electronic gaming is less appreciated (an early text-based immersive game was based on Archers characters and plots).
And, anyway, just telling the “simple” story of the British countryside turned out not to be so simple at all. Agricultural detail repeatedly drags the cast back into the controversial issues of the day; from polytunnels to GM crops and then “re-wilding”, the fields of Borsetshire have kept up with the tech.
Recently, though, it was technology that threatened to derail the whole show. Forced apart by the pandemic earlier this year, the cast instead recorded solo performances from home. “Monologue-gate” may be among the lesser trials inflicted by Covid 19, but for some of us it really hurt. Tried and tested though The Archers’s dramatic formula is, the show could not cope.
It should have been possible, yes, with a barn-full of good writers and actors, to carry on entertaining middle England at its hour of need; and certainly there was a game attempt made. If it ultimately failed, and listeners and critics agree that it did, at least the experiment revealed the true nature of the fuel this show has motored along on for seven decades: PHI, or Pure Human Interaction. It doesn’t matter how much we care for the valiant Emma or wish for the widowed Elizabeth to find love, we do not want to listen to the noise of their stream of consciousness. So how gratefully received were those first episodes of genuine dialogue when they rang out again across the tiled kitchens of suburbia this summer!
All Archers listeners require, it was proved, is some sense of uncertainty. They must be allowed to guess at what is being left unsaid in an exchange – or to be given the chance to predict the nature of a future misunderstanding, perhaps about a cake mix or a cider crop. We now know for sure that this is the very muck and mud on which the veteran rural drama stands or slips.
Happily, the status of the show has been restored in time for the celebrations. Listened to by 5 million people, it remains a prestige feature. And, where once The Archers nurtured talent, including stars such as Tamsin Greig, Felicity Jones and leading television writer Sally Wainwright, the big names now come to Ambridge. Eleanor Bron was cast as Carol Tregorran in 2014, and in the same year the distinguished Shakespearean David Troughton took on Tony Archer.
Any change of cast is handled carefully, with the timbre of a voice matched as far as possible. In the case of Clarrie Grundy, the editors even went back to an actress who had played her before. And the channel controller is right to proceed with protective caution. As Jane Garvey, erstwhile host of Woman’s Hour said this month, listening to The Archers “is part of your general education … it sort of seeps into you.”
As Radio 4 undergoes alterations of all sorts, with the disappearance of presenter Mark Mardell, the departure of Jenni Murray, as well as Garvey, from Woman’s Hour, and the impending loss of the familiar tones of announcers Neil Sleat, Diana Speed and Corrie Corfield, some corner of an ancient meadow does seem worth preserving.