The Archers

Unlike our mothers, our generation of potential soap-opera audiences is probably watching reality TV or CSI Investigates. However, there is one drama to which I’m totally addicted, along with millions of college-educated, middle class Britons: The Archers.

In its infinite wisdom, the BBC launched what is now the longest-running soap opera in the history of broadcasting in 1950. I should point out that it’s a radio series run on BBC Radio 4, the smart, talk-radio channel that is the staple of the chattering classes. Its original aim was to educate the farmer in post-war Britain about the latest farming technologies and issues. World War II created many years of rationing and food shortages, making food production a major priority for post-war Europe. By weaving agricultural knowledge into a story of village folks, the Beeb was able to spread farming know-how quickly. One would expect that such a Soviet approach to drama would result in a stilted and contrived product. But a serious commitment to character and plot made it a winner.

The Archers is the name of the central family, established by Dan Archer in the early years although he was long dead by the time I started listening. His son Phil is now a grandfather, married to his second wife Jill with four children who are at the heart of village life: David, twins Kenton and Shula, and Elizabeth. It takes place in the fictional village of Ambridge, on the river Am, in the non-existent yet credible-sounding county of Borcetshire. Nearby towns and villages include Darrington and Felbrisham, which I’m sure you’d happily seek out if I recommended them for your English vacation.

It sounds predictable, but what is so fabulous about the series is the way it holds our attention through minor comic tales to full-blown scandals and family tragedies. When Independent Television (ITV) launched as the first commercial channel and third TV channel ever in Britain on September 22, 1955, the BBC took on this upstart by running one of the best-known tragedies in the history of The Archers — Phil Archer’s first wife, Grace, burned to death in a terrible barn fire. Yes, the BBC was not shy about sacrificing a matriarch for the good of the institution. I believe the radio ratings beat out ITV’s first night. (BTW, we didn’t get our fourth TV channel in Britain until the 1980s.)

To give you a taste, here are some of the current story lines:

It’s summer in England and this means summer fetes and county fairs. But this year, jovial and irresponsible Kenton has come up with the concept of the Vegetable Olympics. Christopher Carter starts the event with the courgette (zucchini) Olympic flame carried through the village before the contestants begin the swede javelin and other leguminous events. For the British, vegetables are always funny.

On a more serious and 21st century note, gay couple Adam (Archers’ cousin and entrepreneurial farmer) and Ian (Irish chef at the village posh hotel and restaurant Gray Gables) are facing a relationship crisis. Ian wants to have a baby with his straight girlfriend Madds, but Adam has freaked out. Adam’s enlightened mother Jennifer talks him through it and finally Adam enthusiastically agrees to co-parent.

Adam’s stepfather and ruthless businessman Brian is contemplating a secret trip to Germany to see his ex-lover and mother of his youngest child. The affair with Siobhan (apparently the folks of Ambridge village just can’t resist those Irish accents) was one of the great scandals of the last few years and became the topic of talk shows and news programs. Jennifer forgave him, but Brian wrestles with the fact that he has a child he never sees.

Tom Archer, the younger entrepreneur of the village has successfully launched Gourmet Grills, a mobile burger van, which sells his premium sausages (funnier even than vegetables) at summer festivals and fairs. However, a pitch war has broken out, involving the trashing of his burger van. Undaunted, Tom ends an episode with the dramatic declaration “Gourmet Grills are here to stay!” No wonder we won at Agincourt.

The real drama of the last year, however, was the breakdown of Emma’s marriage to Will Grundy. Emma had always been attracted to his bad-boy brother Ed, but knew staid Will would be better husband material. Two weeks before the wedding she has drunken sex with Ed, but goes through with her vows. Then she’s pregnant and gives birth to baby George. Convinced that Ed is the father, she leaves Will and sets up home in a cramped caravan in her parents’ yard only to find Will is the father after all. The pressure is too much, she moves in with her parents for the baby’s sake but they won’t allow Ed to accompany her. He disappears leaving everyone sick with worry…last week he turned up in a Borcetshire hospital, beaten up, alcoholic, and, if that weren’t enough, addicted to crack! And this is rural England!!

The wise editors at The Archers would never leave us entirely bereft and shocked. Balance is all and this story line is punctuated by the unfolding love story of Titcombe (no comment), chauffeur and handyman to Nigel and Elizabeth (the de facto lord and lady of the manor) who in his 70s has fallen for widowed housekeeper Mrs. Pugsley. Titcombe (can’t resist writing it twice) is so distracted, that he leaves the riding mower on and Nigel and Elizabeth have to hilariously rescue the riderless mower before it causes injury. One of the great things about The Archers is the proliferation of non-speaking characters. We will never hear the dulcet tones of Titcombe or Mrs. Pugsley but their antics are convincingly mediated by other characters.

The program is a national obsession for the demographic of Radio 4 listeners now known as Archers Addicts. The Internet has of course enabled the BBC to engage its listeners through a very comprehensive site with chat rooms, interviews with the actors, and background on the characters. I like to avoid the photographs of actors as they never match up to the characters that live in my mind’s eye.

It’s been hard for me to keep up with The Archers as I’ve moved around. In France in the early 90s, I lived just too far south to catch the long wave radio broadcast, but when we moved to the Loire Valley we could receive a crackly Radio 4 and listened religiously to the weekly omnibus edition. When I moved to D.C. in 1999, we didn’t have broadband so I subscribed to the daily email digest. Now, of course I can listen with ease and my heart warms every time I hear the famous theme tune, Barwick Green.

Go on, give it a try, you just might like it.

3 responses to “The Archers”

  1. Lane says:

    Yet another example of why Americans find you people so charming, so facinating, and yet so odd!

    Delightful.

  2. IWTATBM says:

    Well I live in Ambridge and am fed up of this damn fly-on-the-wall documentary. To see all these locals turned luvvies strutting around as if they’re more important than the rest of us makes my blood boil. I’m thinking of quitting this village for ever, I really am. I’m not going to Darrington though, they’re worse.

  3. Stella says:

    I’ve always thought Felbrisham sounded nice.