BBC, Complaints, Feedback, Flooding, Mustardland, The Archers

The Archers: This Is The End, My Friend?

An everyday view of country life…

The Archers on BBC Radio 4 used to be like a big slice of chocolate cake at the end of a hard day. It was a harmless indulgence. A pick-me-up containing a few ingredients that might even do you some good (well, eggs and butter are off the verboten list now, aren’t they?), if only psychologically.

Lately it’s become cigarettes and absinthe—a deadly habit I just can’t kick. How I wish I could, especially after the past few months when, as I predicted in my other blogs here about The Archers, it feels more like Eastenders on Am.

I don’t have the heart to go through all the ways this programme has failed me, and a lot of other listeners, recently. If you want a taste of public opinion, read the comments on The Archers Facebook Page (beware trolls), The Archers Blog, and #thearchers on twitter. All this social media was set up by the BBC to create an interactive community, but they never seem to do any interacting themselves, or act to stem the rising tide (a fitting image) of complaints.

How I Spent My Last Sabbatical From The Archers…

The night of The Flood dragged out over every evening for a week was a perfect example of a great opportunity wasted. I was once caught up in a real-life flash flood that killed several people. The hell portrayed by The Archers was realistic—it was the execution that was all wrong. The drama should have been condensed into a one-hour special. As proof of this idea, it worked well as an omnibus, but as five (was it only five? It felt like five hundred) chunks of 13 minutes, it was an incoherent mess. Floods are a short burst of mindless terror, not a week of fancy sound effects.

The Archers team is very proud of their research among farmers and others caught up in last year’s flooding. Unfortunately, that simply reveals another great flaw in this storyline. How many of the farmers they interviewed will ever be caught out by flood water again?  Despite this dry winter, every landowner I know in Somerset has kept one ear to weather forecasts, and has been even more scrupulous than usual about clearing out drainage systems. If the scriptwriters had let a few years elapse before using this story, complacency might have set in among real-life people living on flood plains, and it could have served as a useful reminder.

What sort of farmers don’t take any notice of online weather warnings so thoughtfully put out for them by the BBC? Wait—I know! The sort of farmers who wanted to move an entire dairy enterprise to the other end of the country, and  invest shedloads of money they didn’t have, in creating a brand-new dairy farm at a time when milk prices are on the floor. In other words, idiots. Who wants to listen to a drama about such unbelievable, unloveable characters?

Which brings me to my final rant. A member of the Mustardland online community of Archers listeners wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC. They received a form letter in reply, full of platitudes and basically saying The Archers was cutting edge drama with millions of faithful listeners. The inference was that this is how it’s going to be from now on, so get used to it.

The sneering dismissal of anyone who dares shine a light into this growing gloom is bad enough. The fact that I, and several other people I know, received exactly the same letter—word for word apart from our names, and complaint reference numbers—makes it ten times worse.

The Archers is going to feature on Radio 4’s Feedback programme this week. I’d like to think the programme will kick its usual habit of letting The Powers That Be tell all complainants they’re wrong and the editor and scriptwriters are completely right, but I’m not holding my breath.

Those who live by social media may die by it. I really hope it doesn’t kill off The Archers I once knew, and loved.

BBC, Feedback, Radio4, The Archers

The Archers—Is It "Essential" Any More?

Stormclouds over Ambridge?

The BBC are having a laugh (or “‘avin a larf”, to put it in language they’ll understand) with their long-running Radio 4 Programme The Archers.  Nobody expects TA to be about country “folk” any more, but it could at least bear some resemblance to life in the country. Instead, it’s degenerating into an easy way to keep the BBC the subject of its own headlines.

I’ve written before about how my family, and loads of other people I know, were once devoted daily listeners but have now lost the habit. You can read more about it here and here. Times and tastes change, but that can’t explain the growth in complaints from TA’s wider audience on the programme’s dedicated social networks, and heard on radio programmes such as Feedback.

There are still priceless moments in The Archers. Emma’s great line about apologising to an elf made me laugh this week—what on earth had George done?—but they’re far fewer these days. Jennifer screeching at the airport made me want to scream, too, but it was believable. Kate is every inch her mother’s daughter, so I could understand the veganism and the yoga (although with two (?) children and a hunky-sounding husband back home in South Africa, I’m amazed the edges haven’t been knocked off Kate’s self-absorption).  The scenes around the Bridge Farm tree were too schmaltzy for my liking, but hey, it’s Christmas…

The Archers’ old subtitle was “An Everyday Story Of Country Folk”. That doesn’t sound right these days, so the programme’s Facebook page now has the subtitle Essential drama from the heart of the country. Bad news, BBC. It stopped being essential for me several years ago. I only dip in and out of The Archers these days, to see if it’s improved.

I miss my old habit, so this week I made the effort and listened to every episode to see if calm and escapism has returned. Sadly, The Archers is still on a downward slope towards becoming Eastenders-on-Am. To deconstruct the BBC’s own description, The Archers now has far too much drama (both broadcast, and behind the scenes), and not enough country for me.

The main problems I have with the programme centre around changes of personality, odd voices, and poor research.

Adam and Charlie are the perfect example of the creeping Eastenderization of Ambridge. Adam is in an established relationship.  Not every couple should expect to be put under stress, simply because the editor decides it’s their turn to be tempted into adultery. In any case, like many of the new characters, Charlie is quite unlikeable. Would you fancy him? Or Stalker Harrison, for that matter?

The Roy-Hayley-Elizabeth roundabout shows up the ridiculousness of recent story lines.  Dull jobsworth Roy & snooty Elizabeth worked together for many years without the slightest flicker of attraction. Then overnight, Roy persuaded Elizabeth to go camping, and indulge in a torrid affair while simultaneously arranging a wildly successful festival in a matter of weeks. Roy had always been a good father to his girls, yet during this abrupt character-change he treated them as an irritating detail— much in same way the scriptwriters treat us. Look at the way Pat and Tony tracked down their long-lost grandson, Rich. The boy’s mother Sharon was never the sort to miss a trick so why she never spilled the beans about Rich years ago escaped me, until Rich moved into Ambridge. Then I discovered the awful draining influence the place has on intellect. Sharon only wanted to save her son.When he lived with his mother and her partner, Rich was a natural cricketer, a model student, mad about science, predicted to get straight As, and keen to become an ecologist, IIRC.  By running away to Ambridge, he shed 100 IQ points, all his ambition, and his birth name. He’s now called Johnny. If I was Rich/Johnny’s mother, I’d have launched a rescue mission straight away. Bridge Farm is no place for any sane person. The boy’s natural father was squashed by a tractor, Ecoli stalked the dairy, Tony’s bull went berserk…the place must stand on the land Health and Safety forgot (apart from that visit by Johnny’s painfully wooden tutor). 

Why does the small son of a Grundy (I can’t remember which one, and to be frank, I no longer care) and Emma Carter speak with the perfect received pronunciation of the child of a BBC employee? Could it be there’s a bit of a theme going on, given that the established part of Tom Archer was recast for no apparent reason, so soon after David Troughton took over the part of Tom’s father, Tony? When challenged to rearrange the sentence pro quo quid, the BBC will only say they want actors with dramatic training. When the new Pip has such trouble finding her accent (and octave?), maybe they should be scrutinising their directors, too. 

Sensitively handled, the birth of a baby with Down’s Syndrome could have been a great way to educate listeners about the subject. It would also have highlighted more general rural problems such as having to travel miles to attend ante-natal appointments, wait days for appointments with a doctor or difficulties with  transport to hospital. Instead, baby Bethany disappeared under the radar almost as soon as she was born. She and her parents are supposedly moving away to Birmingham, with the feeble excuse there are no facilities at the village school. I assumed inclusion was the law. It’s a fact that several children with (sometimes severe) learning difficulties have attended our village school. The Archers’ team could have explored the general ignorance around this subject, and publicised the help available, instead of dropping it when it got too difficult.

Expecting us to believe David and Ruth Archer will move from Ambridge to Prudhoe is beyond ridiculous, too. Neither of them seems sure why they’re going, and the whole business has been treated as though buying and selling farms is the same as buying ordinary houses. With plunging milk prices, David and Ruth must be epically stupid to try and set up a new dairy enterprise where there’s no existing infrastructure, especially as Ruth was crying over a domestic utility bill not long ago. Surely they’d at least wait and see what compensation they’d get from the proposed road scheme before accepting a verbal agreement for a suspiciously large sum on a place which must be subject to a planning blight. In any case, why Ruth wants to disrupt her whole family and business for the sake of a parent she never normally mentions, or visits, and admitted she was “bored” by caring for, is madness. 

I could go on, and on (and on), but I’ll leave you with a Christmas-themed thought. If The Archers is intended to be “essential drama from the heart of the country”,  they should mine the rich veins of inspiration around the vicar of Ambridge. He could be driven to desperation over his dwindling, ageing congregations, the (realistic) raising of funds, or theft from the several churches he’s expected to run, or attacks on the clergy. Instead, Rev Franks was able to book a cathedral choir (not just any old choir, mind!) for the village carol service, only weeks before Christmas.

I suggest The Archers team concentrate on getting it right and realistic in 2015, not dumber and more dramatic. What New Year’s Resolution would you suggest for them?