The real Archers Country
By Graham Harvey
13th April 2019
One of the wonderful things about The Archers, it can suddenly remind you of a storyline from the distant past. If, like me, you’ve been hanging out in Ambridge for a good old time, the memories come drifting back rather like the scent of wood-smoke on a frosty night.
At Brookfield Farm they’ve all been celebrating the christening of Baby Rose. It should have been a joyous event for the Archer family, not least for great-grandmother Jill. However, it turned out to be a rather bitter-sweet occasion for the family matriarch. It brought back the pain of a family tragedy more than 65 years ago, a memory which has stayed with her since she married Farmer Phil and became one of the Archer clan herself.
The victim of the tragedy was Phil’s first wife Grace. A little over five months after the couple were married in St Stephen’s Church, Ambridge – the same church where Rosie was christened – she died in a fire in the stables of Grey Gables country house hotel. Brave Grace had rushed into the blazing building to rescue her sister-in-law’s horse Midnight. A burning beam crashed down and crushed her. She died in Phil’s arms on the way to hospital.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of that event on the national mood. In the mid 1950s The Archers was attracting a regular audience of around 15 million. This was in the days before television first got the nation staring at screens. The radio tragedy led to an outpouring of public grief on a scale unmatched by any soap opera before or since. Lorry-loads of flowers and sympathy cards were delivered to the BBC studios in Birmingham.
In the tabloid press angry leader writers demanded that BBC executives name the guilty parties who had conceived and planned such a cruel story-line. Stunned by the scale of the outrage, programme managers ordered Archers’ boss Godfrey Baseley to move the story on quickly so as to minimise the distress for listeners.
Phil was allowed a decent interval for grieving. But as soon as the programme-makers considered he’d suffered for long enough, they had him meet Jill, a demonstrator of kitchen gadgets. Just four months later they were married, despite her initial reluctance to settle down on a farm.
It was a happy marriage and she wouldn’t have changed anything. But as she later confided in her friend Carol, the tragic ending of Phil’s first marriage created many challenges and insecurities. The name Grace became forever tainted.
At Rose’s christening the memories and feelings came flooding back. Pip and Toby, the girl’s parents, had decided to call her Rose Ruth Grace. Unfortunately Toby failed to tell Jill that the G-word was to become one of the child’s middle names. Jill didn’t get to hear it until the vicar spoke the name from the font. It was a moment of sad reflection in an otherwise happy day, a moment nicely handled by the writer.
We older fans of the show will all have shared those bitter-sweet memories. It was a reminder, if one were needed, that The Archers is – at its heart – a family saga up there with Brideshead and the Forsytes.
Thinking, as I am, about the early Archers, I’m bound to mention another aspect of those far off days of the 1950s, one that has echoes for me. The farms featured in those early years were all small farms and small-holdings. In the years immediately after the War, there were nearly 400,000 farms in Britain, the majority of them were small farms. The average farm size of the time was just 63 acres.
Brookfield, the farm of Dan and Doris Archer, was a small, mixed farm when the drama started. Today the farm’s getting on for 500 acres, while Home Farm – the big, mainly arable farm in Ambridge – is well over 1500 acres. No surprise there. Farms had to get bigger and more efficient to produce more food, didn’t they? Well no actually. It’s a myth dreamed up by the bureaucrats and agri-business moguls.
A couple of weekends ago I had the honour of speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival. The organisers had programmed a day on food and farming issues. Among my fellow speakers was one of my scientific heroes, Professor Hans Herren from the States. A Swiss-born agricultural scientist, Hans has spent much of his working life in Africa developing sustainable farming systems. So what does he consider the most productive unit for feeding a hungry planet?
Why, the small, mixed farm, of course. They are more than capable of feeding a global population of 16 billion people, he assured his audience, though we should do all we can to keep the number of human beings on the planet well below that figure.
The point is we’d all be better off with smaller farms producing more and better foods, and with more people employed on the land. And here’s the great irony. If we reorganised our present environmentally-damaging food system, farmers, too, would be better off. What’s not to like?
It’s a theme I’m likely to be returning to in this column. In fact as Brexit approaches there’s a rare opportunity for all of us to transform our countryside through the food choices we make. And one of the Archers farms is very likely to be showing the way! It’s only a guess, of course. I don’t get to see future storylines any more. But I have a hunch. More in a later blog.
Graham Harvey is the former agricultural story editor of The Archers
9th March 2019
I’m reading a terrifying book about the nightmare future we face as a result of climate change. It’s called The Uninhabitable Earth and, as the title suggests, author David Wallace-Wells offers precious little by way of comfort.
9th February 2019
When I first arrived in Ambridge back in the 1980s Brian Aldridge was by a big margin the wealthiest of all the farmers in the village. With about 1500 acres of prime farmland and no mortgage he was about as solid as the Bank of England.
2nd February 2019
Vet Alistair Lloyd is rapidly becoming a local hero. If he saves another sheepdog, lame pony or dairy cow injured in a farm accident he’ll surely be in line for some special honour from a grateful community.
19th January 2019
I’m intrigued by the odd behaviour of Brian and Jennifer Aldridge following their enforced down-sizing from a large and comfortable farmhouse to a small cottage next to Kirsty and Roy.