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.

myBook.to/MyDreamGuy
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.

Alison Graham, BBC Radio 4, Jill Archer, Radio drama, The Archers, TV soaps

The Archers: This Time It’s Personal…

You’re In The Country Now…

My blogs on the state of BBC Radio 4’s long-running serial, The Archers, have excited a lot of interest. The programme used to be a few minutes of easy listening for me each weekday evening and for a longer stretch each Sunday, but not any more. That’s why I came up with a few suggestions for what may–or may not be– improvement, depending on your point of view.

You can see what some other readers had to say about my previous blogs here. No less a person than Alison Graham, columnist for The Radio Times, also weighed in with this comment on Twitter which I’m reproducing here in full:

Your suggestion that TA will be scrapped is absurd – why would R4 dump its biggest drama? And plots about dog theft? Really?

I didn’t have time to craft a reply succinct enough for Twitter. However, if Ms Graham reads this post, my original aim in blogging about The Archers was to stave off any possible plans to scrap it–however unlikely–by acting in advance. I mean, look how popular and useful the BBC Gardening Message Boards were, and they were closed down!

Rather than simply moan about why I don’t listen to the programme any more, I wanted to suggest ways to turn it back into the rural–based drama and entertainment I used to enjoy. Part of this enjoyment stemmed from the unique feel of The Archers. It  was different from all the urban-based soaps, on TV. To my mind it’s become a clone of those other programmes and has suffered as a result. Other opinions are available, by the way. This blog is a purely personal rant.

For example, take Jill Archer. A brilliant cook, homemaker, mother and beekeeper, she was always one of my favourite characters. I’m younger than Jill’s daughter Shula, yet while I need the help of a big, strong, ruggedly-handsome chap to help me with the honey harvest each year, 80-something Jill is suddenly throwing herself into a difficult calving. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember her having either the time, strength or inclination to offer much more than tea and sympathy to her farmer husband Phil when she was of an age to give hands-on help

Here’s my idea for a storyline for Jill.  It’s relevant to contemporary country living, without alienating urban listeners.

Jill is being helped with the honey harvest by another cast member and one or other of them gets stung.  The victim goes into anaphylactic shock. The notorious lack of a good mobile signal in the countryside (rarely if ever mentioned on The Archers) could make this serious situation fatal. If that storyline’s too scary, how about Jill reluctantly deciding the active side of beekeeping is too much for her?  She starts working on the theory side instead. Google the dread word “modules” and you’ll find they take a lot of study. That will bring in the lack of further education provision in many rural areas, reduced library services and the truly cr*ppy Broadband speeds most of us out in the sticks have to endure. In the meantime, she can act as a mentor to the next generation of beekeepers, while they do the heavy/awkward work for her. All that would be completely in character for Jill, IMHO.  These ideas are too late for this year, but they’d be something to consider for the future.

A word of warning though, Scriptwriters. Whatever storyline you’re working on at the moment, please, please, please don’t ram it down our throats every day for a month then drop it without another mention. The huge snowball of costs incurred by the-wedding-that-never-was is a famous example of this, but there are plenty of others. I’d cite that Mr Tod and Jemima Puddleduck of Ambridge, Rob and Helen, but you’ve come back to that storyline recently. Great–I can’t wait to see how that turns out!

I think weaving any story-strand in and out for weeks and months is better than dropping in huge lumps at one time, like clay onto a wheel.

 What’s your opinion?

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: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/Schweinerei-einer-schwarzkittelrotte-001.jpg
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?