BBC Radio 4, country living, Radio drama, The Archers

The Archers—A Habit I Just Can’t Kick

Not St Stephen’s

I know, each time we poor listeners are subjected to some new outrage I say I’ll never listen to The Archers again, but the truth is I can’t help myself. As I’ve explained in previous blogs, two generations of my family listened every day, plus the weekend omnibus. That’s all changed. I know lots of people who’ve given up on it completely. As the series degenerates into Eastenders-On-Am, I can go for weeks at a time without switching on at all. The trouble is, I miss the old-style Archers terribly. It’s a true addiction. I dip into online forums and the BBC Blog here to find out if it’s worth tuning in again.

It never used to be like this. The Archers began a few years after World War Two, when few people had TVs. The Ministry of Agriculture liked the idea of a radio programme that would be “an agricultural Dick Barton” (think Indiana Jones, with tractors) to inform farmers of best practice while entertaining its listeners. The young, go-ahead Phil Archer tried out things his father frowned on. Comedy and drama spiced it up. The village’s old scoundrel, Walter Gabriel, was always cackling at something. His son, the oddly suave and sophisticated Nelson, was a likeable yet slightly shady character. Phil famously lost his first wife Grace in a fire, a fictional tragedy intended to steal the thunder of a real-life TV station’s opening night.

You tuned in to The Archers every night to hear about the ups and downs of family life in a believable country setting, with the odd train robbery, pet elephant, and plane crash thrown in now and again for variety.

I’ve lived in the country nearly all my life, and while times change and the tag line “an everyday story of country folk” was definitely beyond its sell-by date, The Archers is no longer fifteen minutes of escapism. They’ve shortened the slot, and the programme is now a clone of the snarling, sensational TV soaps I rejected a long time ago.

Okay, so life’s not a bowl of cherries but the reason I (and my parents, and my grandparents before them) listened to The Archers was because I cared about the programmes characters, I wanted to hear the baddies get their comeuppance, and yes, I admit it–to laugh at the sometimes silly sound effects. It was fun. It was familiar.

Now all that has changed. First, the wind of Political Correctness swept through The Archers. The Vicar married a Hindu, while Ambridge has been introduced to racists, homophobes and gays, and at one time rivalled the United Nations in its number and variety of accents. Then, the Archers got a new editor.  Sean O’Connor came from TV, and doesn’t it show? He’s jettisoned old characters and some young ones, with the excuse they haven’t been to drama school. The programme is now stuffed with drama school alumni who all (with the exception of Daisy Badger, who is unique) sound exactly the same. This really, really doesn’t work on radio. We have no visual clues to help us sort out who is speaking to whom.

Reflecting the country’s changing attitudes and population is a good thing. The problem for me is that concepts in The Archers are now introduced for the sake of it, with no reference to past characterisation, or future story development. For example: Shula Archer is a middle-aged pillar of the community, businesswoman, churchwarden and all-round goody-goody. She witnessed a relative’s partner, Rob, commit a violent assault, then lied to the police about what she saw. That’s something St Shula would never do in this story universe. Something she definitely would do is confide in her family about Rob’s violent temper. This hasn’t happened. People in real villages talk to each other. Rob the thug’s card would have been marked out of existence a long time ago. Instead he’s become a pantomime villain, while his first wife, the sainted Jess, has vanished. The nice, respectable woman who was liked by the whole village has been written out. She’s never spoken about by the villagers any more. That’s highly unlikely, considering how they were all such friends. Worse, Jess was apparently always a drunken slapper, according to the latest scripts. Wrong! Lady Muck Jennifer has a radar for that sort of thing. She would NEVER have let Brian within a mile of Jess if that was the case.

Kenton Archer has been bailed out by his family on lots of occasions. Expecting a windfall from the sale of his brother’s farm, he maxed out on credit cards. So far, so typical. He’s always been an idiot. When the sale fell through (another gripe—the scriptwriters now treat us as the idiots. How many listeners thought Brookfield Farm really would be sold, and David would move away? None, that’s how many.) Real Kenton would have found a pressing need to visit his daughter on the other side of the world. Instead, he stays and slips into drinking and depression. That could well happen in real life, I agree. What I can’t understand is why his wife, Jolene, craves his approval for the financial help she’s getting from his family to bail out the business left to her by her husband? Jolene’s a tough, sensible woman. She’d accept the money, save her business, and get help for Kenton. And that’s another thing—only months ago Ruth Archer was crying over the size of an electricity bill. Since then, her family has had to pony up the dough for all sorts of expenses surrounding the failed sale of Brookfield, petrol, and temporary help while Ruth drives long distances to visit her mother. Now they can afford to hand over thousands of pounds to bail out Kenton, again. The rainbow after the Ambridge flood obviously had both ends on Brookfield land, with a crock of gold deposited at each one.
Go Wild In The Country!

The only reason I listen to The Archers now is if I get a hint that the evil Rob is going to get found out. As a survivor of mental abuse I’m horribly familiar with what’s happening to Helen but to be honest, they’ve turned Rob into such a pantomime villain the storyline is ridiculous. It’s the people you least suspect who get away with DV for the longest time. Rob’s been fiddling the meg-dairy’s computer, threatening blackmail, and he walked out on his job “on a whim”. To take just one of those complaints, a huge enterprise like Berrow Farm would have a dedicated IT team. You don’t rely on mucky fingered non-experts keying in info, as and when. You pay people who know all about it, and do it all day—properly.

The Archers used to have an agricultural advisor. I think they must have been abandoned somewhere, along with the archives and character sheets!

Have you been listening to The Archers for a long time, or are you a recent recruit? Are you enjoying the new-style Archers?

In other news, my own everyday story of city folk fooling about and (eventually) going wild in the country, My Dream Guy, is released on 15th September. You can order your copy here.

BBC Radio 4, country living, Drama, Farming Today, The Archers

More About The Archers…

Mustardland Redux?

Lots of people have said how they agreed with my previous post about BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, Missed! You can read that here. Long story short, my family started listening to this Everyday Story of Country Folk (!),  as it was originally subtitled, with Episode One. I don’t know anyone who listens that regularly any more. I’m disappointed at the way The Archers has gone downhill recently, so this post suggest a remedy.

I used to listen to The Archers every evening, sometimes its lunchtime repeat too, and always the omnibus on Sundays. Now, like thousands of other people, I lurk on The Archers message boards instead. I keep trying to pick up my listening habit again, but so far I’ve had no luck. In my opinion the programme’s no longer worth it. That makes me sad.

The Archers began as thinly-disguised information for farmers and growers. Over the years the preachy part reduced, and it became a  few minutes of easy listening at the end of the working day.  Admittedly in the past, some of it was laughable (Walter’s elephant, and the Great Ambridge Train Robbery) but good scripts and careful research meant listeners took the rough with the smooth. If you got fed up with one story line, it didn’t matter. You loved, identified with or enjoyed disliking the characters, rather than the plot. It was no hardship to shut your ears to the bits you didn’t like, and listen out for the rest.

Now it’s all change. Character-driven entertainment has now become plot-centred soap-opera. Ok, so the words “An Everyday Story of Country Folk” is too old-fashioned, but “Essential Drama From The Heart Of The Country” means Eastenders-on-Am is here to stay. Believe me, that’s NOT a good thing.

In this house, suspension of disbelief has been replaced by ridicule. Rural churches aren’t full every week, with thousands raised for repairs within months. Children (especially babies, and/or those with Down’s Syndrome) don’t disappear for months on end without even being mentioned in conversation. Festivals aren’t organised on a whim to bolster failing finances. To get people to pay decent money to attend them, you need class acts. To try and persuade us either Jolene or Fallon have ever been paid to sing like that is not simply beyond the realms of fantasy. It’s an insult to our intelligence. Parachuting The Pet Shop Boys to save LoxFest at the last minute was beyond ridiculous.

I could go on, but it’s too depressing. There are well-handled bits too, like Jack’s decline, but they’re far too thinly spread. Why don’t the scriptwriters find the drama  in what is really happening in the countryside today? Why are country people so short of money and opportunity? How do you manage with a special needs child, miles from hospitals, and with infrequent public transport? What’s happening to our sense of community? There are a lot of subjects out there to be explored. All it needs is vision, and sensitivity.

Warning – it’s my belief that The Archers is being run down, and on purpose. The next stage will be constructive dismissal from the radio. I’ve had this suspicion for a while, but didn’t like to voice it too loudly in case it speeded up the process. It’s up to us, the listeners, to suggest something better.

Here’s my contribution. Archers Team, please liaise with the people from Farming Today. Dramatising that would be far more interesting and engaging than The Archers has been for some time. In the last week or two, Farming Today has featured pieces on rural crime, specifically dog theft,  rural tourism, and an interview with the farmer who owns the land where the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered (NB. Scripties: I enjoyed that one on the day, and in omnibus. It’s The Priceless Discovery That Keeps On Giving, IMO).

The Farming Today team find interesting, varied things to put on five days a week, every week. I hear it nearly each morning while doing early greenhouses. That programme is never predictable or stale. More importantly, it’s often dramatic without being laughable. Come on, Archers Scriptwriting team! Make friends with Farming Today, and we’ll flock* back to our once-dependable programme.

What do you think of that idea?  Have you got any suggestions for improving The Archers?

*See what I did there?

Alison Graham, country living, Radio drama, The Archers

The Archers: Missed!

Oil Seed Rape, bees for the use of…

This blog is a strictly personal rant about something that used to be close to my heart. Something’s going on in the countryside – and it isn’t country living. Listening to The Archers has been a six-times-a week habit for three generations of my family (Non-listeners catch up here). I never thought I’d be the one to kick it but sadly, I think the programme’s jumped the shark. 

Critic Alison Graham sums up what’s gone wrong here. The Archers used to be a mixture of the funny and factual, the infuriating and the engaging. It’s now no different from any other soap opera. There’s virtually nothing left of the rural aspects which made it unique. When country matters are mentioned on The Archers now, it’s clear the research is only half-hearted. Tom’s cheating on organic principles, and putting down the deposit on a new house when any stockman would live on-site for the good of his animals was parachuted in, then forgotten about just as quickly.

From Our Village Flower Festival

 There are so few decent workmen left in the countryside (they’ve all moved into town), rich couple Jennifer & Brian would have been vetted their kitchen fitters carefully, and had their contract hedged around with penalty clauses. Ambridge Organics, the shop run by passive-aggressive narcissist Helen Archer, has (astonishingly) bucked the trend that’s seen similar shops close in every other real country towns. In fact it’s so successful, they’re going to employ an agency to find an assistant manager to replace part-time help, rather than sticking a card in the shop window! 
The oddest thing, though, is the total lack of gossip about the type of things people living in a village really would talk about. When Helen Archer despaired of ever meeting a man and having a family, she decided to have Artificial Insemination by Donor. 

She was granted it within days, and became pregnant first time. Just like that-and nobody ever asked why, or how she came by little Henry. Similarly, nobody in Ambridge has ever been remotely curious in any way about baby Bethany (who has Down’s Syndrome).  Bethany’s been quietly forgotten, now she’s served her purpose as a soapy plot-device. When you live in a village, you all have to rub along together- that means talking about things like Bethany’s milestones and health, or wondering about who little Henry’s father was, not ignoring them. Out in the wilds there are so few of you about, everyone’s curious about their neighbours!

wild boar damage:
Wild Boar Damage: By Dontworry

Yes, it’s all fiction, but there’s got to be a grain of truth inside the pearl of entertainment. The Archers is now nothing more than Eastenders-on-Am. Why doesn’t the programme  cover real rural issues such as the lack of affordable rural housing, the number of teenagers killed on country roads (tragically, we’ve lost three from this village alone over the past 5 years), wild boar left to roam unchecked, the struggle to keep village churches going (what DOES Alan the Ambridge vicar give away each week, to guarantee almost 100% attendance?), and more cheerfully, the increasing numbers of community initiatives.

Do you listen to The Archers? What do you think about recent developments?

ballet, country living, damson jam, The Nutcracker

A Writer’s Life…Of Damsons and Sugar Plums

If you read my September 14th blog for authorsoundrelations, you’ll know I was getting ready to make damson jam. That didn’t exactly go to plan. As I hadn’t tried this particular recipe before, I did everything by the book. That included using my jam thermometer. The recipe said the fruit and dissolved sugar would take between ten and twenty minutes to reach setting point. As it boiled, the sound changed from thin burbling to a thick, full throated “gloop”. After twenty -five minutes I was convinced – especially as the mixture was clinging to the spoon, but the thermometer still said “no!” I tried putting a blob of jam on a chilled saucer. It wrinkled even faster than good jam should, so I ignored the thermometer and potted the jam. It tastes delicious, but it’s a bit over-boiled and therefore pretty stiff. Next time I think I’ll go by instinct, rather than technology!
When Son Number One saw The Nutcracker on TV at the age of five, he immediately wanted to do ballet lessons. To my shame, I was horrified and spent the next few years impersonating Billy Elliot’s father. He never gave up, so eventually I booked him in for a trial lesson at the Fairie Feet School Of Dancing. I assumed half an hour in an all-girl environment on a Saturday morning would silence him. It did – but only because he loved it. Over the years he went through the grades, progressing from the basic black male ballet shoes to the white ones he coveted. Miss Joy and her staff were perfect teachers. Along the way, Son Number One impressed me with the mature way he dealt with the reactions to those who were, shall we say, curious about his hobby. I was worried he would be bullied, but luckily that was never a problem. You have to be tough to be a ballet dancer. You also need to put in the hours, and now he’s a teenager, Son Number One has computer game design and animation on his mind. Sadly, he’s decided to reclaim his Saturdays by giving up ballet. I never thought I’d say this, but I wish he’d reconsider!  
As a fitting end to my period as a ballet mum, we’ve just booked tickets for The Nutcracker, later in the year. I’m calling it my reward for washing all that sweaty kit, but I can’t deny there’s an element of wondering what-might-have-been. With my sensible head on I know it would have been at best a short, cut-throat career for him, plagued by injury and disappointment, but a writer only deals in dreams… 
The weather is closing in, ready for autumn. It’s a time of transition, like Son Number One’s change of heart. Do you feel like making a change? What are you going to do about it? 
country living, organic food

A Writer’s Lifeline – Abel and Cole

By Elina Mark

We live in a wood, in the middle of nowhere. This is great and I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but there’s a price to pay. There’s only one bus to town per week, and the nearest stop is half a mile away.  Travelling ten miles each way to go shopping by car is a bit of a luxury once you’ve costed in writing time, hassle, petrol and parking costs.  This means Internet shopping has become a real lifeline for us, and city-living DD has recently put me on to a real gem.  She’s away at university, and like all students has to keep tabs on every penny. When she told me she’d signed up for the Abel and Cole box scheme I was amazed. I’d seen a van in their smart yellow-and-green livery parked up outside a posh local house that runs an even posher organic bed-and-breakfast scheme (Reiki and colonic irrigation, anyone?). That had made me think their goods must cost a fortune.
Not a bit of it! One visit to the Abel and Cole website convinced me I had to sign up – and fast. We usually grow most of our own fruit and veg, but a combination of urgent deadlines and the continuous rain last year means we’ve got nothing edible in the garden at the moment, except rhubarb. We’ve been forced to buy in, and choose organic goods whenever we can. Checking the prices we pay at the supermarket against the Abel and Cole lists, there was virtually no difference between them. Actually, items from the box scheme were sometimes cheaper! The minute I started looking through their online pages, I was hooked. There are recipes, offers and tons of interesting information. As an experiment I put in a “one-off” online order with them last week, instead of going to the supermarket. 
Right from the start, I was impressed. Their website is very easy to use. The delivery driver brought our order all the way up our steep drive, right to the back door. Our groceries were beautifully packed in returnable boxes and recyclable packaging with the milk, butter and meat kept cool using returnable icepacks and special insulating pads. Manufacturing these from wool adds value for sheep farmers, which is another advantage of using this service. 
As for our order itself, the fruit and vegetables were the equal of anything I could have got from Waitrose and they were all organic, too. I’ll definitely be putting in a regular weekly order with Abel and Cole from now on, as they also supply many of the things we can’t grow for ourselves, even in a good year (such as cleaning products!). 
Just in case this all sounds to good to be true, there is one thing my next order will address. The oranges which came in our box were delicious, but they were so small we’ll need to order a lot more next time, to equal the satisfaction value of the seedless monsters on offer at our local supermarket.
The driving force behind Laverstoke Park Farm, Jody Scheckter,  has been advising for years that we should “never eat anything made in a factory”. That’s a tall order, but with scandals about mass-produced food being adulterated with horse meat of dubious origin and other unsavoury things, cooking from scratch at least gives every one of us control over the ingredients in our food.  Using lovely, fresh organic fruit and vegetables like the ones from the Abel and Cole box scheme really tempts me to try out some new recipes. Even Son Number One has started taking an interest in food. He’s now making cheese toasties (grated cheese between two slices of toast, and microwaved for 30 seconds) which was a new one on me. It’s a start, and they’re delicious – especially with some salad. 
What’s your favourite recipe to cook from scratch?