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, 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?

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?

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?