Dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum….. the opening bars of the Archer’s theme tune always bring me straight back to my childhood and sitting in the kitchen with my mother listening to the opening bars of Barwick Green (the theme tune, which for some arcane reason we listeners shall never be privy to, the omnibus theme tune is a much jauntier sounding version of the original with squeeze boxes and fiddles playing at a faster tempo and more like a sea shanty than a bucolic pastoral). I have been listening to the goings on in Ambridge all my life; I followed Lizzy’s disastrous affair with the cad Cameron Frazer who left her alone and pregnant on the side of the road back in 1992 lying in bed on Sunday mornings with crashing hangovers, listened in to Brian’s torrid affair with doctor’s wife Siobhan Hathaway while working on a PhD, and in the past few weeks have been glued to the run up to the wedding of the brat Tom Archer and Kirsty Millar, culminating in Tom jilting poor Kirsty as she arrived at the church on a hayrick.
What is it that is so appealing about life in a fictional village somewhere in the English midlands and what has kept it as the world’s longest running soap for over 60 years? I think the fact that it is a radio series is the key. We can imagine what the characters look like, immerse ourselves in the fictional village of Ambridge in the imaginary county of Borsetshire and its nearest towns Felpersham and Borchester (the website rather spoils this, but we can choose not to look at it). The great thing about radio drama is that it gives longevity and complexity to characters which unfolds over decades. Unlike the telly soaps if an actor wants to leave he or she can be replaced by another actor with a similar sounding voice, and we get a really 3 dimensional view of a character with the good and the bad variously highlighted. The 6 times a week fifteen minute slots allow stories to unfold gradually and in almost real time. It is also a more gentle and realistic than its telly rivals; there are no plane crashes, mass murders, explosions or total wipe-outs of characters. This is not to say that there have not been dramatic deaths, but they tend to be of the kind we are all familiar with and more shocking for it. I was genuinely devastated when John Archer died in a tractor accident back in the 90s – it was a total shock and most unexpected. Similarly when Nigel Pargeter fell off the roof of Lower Loxley hall, leaving tiresome Lizzy a widow we had no idea he was leaving the show, (but I was delighted as Nigel was a shocking drip). Shula’s first husband, dull solicitor Mark Hebden was killed in a car accident, leaving Shula torn between dreadful sorrow and delight that she was pregnant at last with the child they had been trying for for years. I missed the most dramatic death in show as it happened several years before I was born – Phil Archer’s then wife Grace perished in a fire at the stables.
We addicts have Facebook pages and twitter feeds where we discuss the night’s episode, sometimes arguing vehemently about who was in the right or wrong. Some addicts take this to extreme lengths and get extremely het up and agitated about things, others just post in order to foment polemic, which is great fun (guilty as charged m’lud). The Archers Anarchists are a group whose mission statement is to promote the actual fact that ‘The Archers is a real life fly-on-the-wall documentary about one of the strangest villages in England.’ And believe that Ambridge is a village inhabited by social misfits, murderers and nauseatingly cosy people.
The Anarchists have a point – half of my time listening to an episode will be spent shouting abuse at characters who drive me bonkers; drippy, goody goody Shula, dreadful down and out Daryl who threatens, but sadly never actually does top himself, and lately the newest villain, sinister Rob Titchener who has wormed his way into neurotic Helen Archer’s bed and is now showing controlling and narcissistic tendencies. Similarly I may be cheering on favourites like silly, affected but kind-hearted busybody Linda Snell, sweet matriarch Jill Archer and stoical hardworking Clarrie Grundy.
There are of course many anachronisms in the programme, for example all the characters speak with different accents. Some of the locals like Joe Grundy sound like they come from the West Country, while others are straight out of Brum. The most infuriating accent has to be Ruth Archer’s –even though she has been married to middle class David for 25 years and lived in Ambridge for all that time with his family she has the thickest Geordie accent and still says ‘me’ when she means I. I want to stamp on the radio each time she is on air. (Incidentally, the actor who plays David, Tim Bentinck in the 12th earl of Portland in real life). Because the programmes are recorded some 6 weeks in advance there are also some rather clunky topical inclusions, like the recent flooding, so apropos of nothing a character would suddenly allude to the weather. Another more memorable parachuted scene was when the princess of Wales died and the programme suddenly went over to Jill and Shula whispering how sad it all was while praying in the church.
The programme has progressed from public service agrarian information bulletin, which was its initial inception, into an enduring and meaty full on drama. It has dealt sensitively with many issues over the years; Jack Woolley’s Alzheimer’s disease, Lizzy’s abortion and its effect on her sister Shula who was desperately trying to get pregnant at the same time, Brian’s serial adultery and Jennifer’s decision to stand loyally by his side, Adam’s homosexuality, the death of a child and other issues of importance which listeners can relate to and more importantly, learn to see how these issues affect everyone involved.
Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to listen to the podcast of today’s episode to see how the budding flirtation between Fallon Roger’s and dishy PC Burns is coming along.