The real Archers Country
By Graham Harvey
15th December 2019
It’s that festive season again. I can tell because every time we go over to The Bull or Underwoods department store in Borchester they’re playing Jingle Bells. It all helps create a jolly scene, I suppose.
I don’t remember who it was, but someone once made the shrewd observation that they preferred radio drama to TV because the pictures were better.
There’s no denying that we’re getting plenty of festive tableaux this year. There’s the annual favourite of Clarrie Grundy sitting in the drafty shipping container that doubles for Joe and Eddie’s office plucking feathers off dead turkeys.
Then new for 2018 we’re catching glimpses of Jennifer Aldridge sitting in her beloved designer kitchen trying to work out how she and Brian are supposed to pack up a lifetime’s belongings by New Year’s Eve. To raise money they’re having to get out of the house they’ve shared for more than 30 years.
To complete this Dickensian collection we see Lily Pargeter and her heart-broken mother Elizabeth planning the jolly Deck-the-Halls event at Lower Loxley even as young Freddie languishes in a prison cell following his drugs conviction. Oh well, that’s Christmas I suppose.
I can’t help but recall my first Christmas on the show back in the 1980s. It had fallen to me to write the Christmas week’s episodes. At the monthly script meeting we’d had a full day of planning winter storylines and were packing away our notebooks and getting ready to go home.
As I headed for the door the editor, William Smethurst, called me back. I’ve got an extra story for you, he said. I don’t care how you explain it, but on Christmas Eve I want us to hear Eddie come back home from the pub with a couple of young piglets inside his coat. Back at Grange Farm, I want him and Clarrie to build a little pig pen in the kitchen, alongside the Aga where it’s warm.
I duly wrote the story as instructed. And in those Christmas episodes, whenever we crossed to Grange Farm to catch up on the Grundy family Christmas, we were treated to the sound of contented pig squeals mixing with the usual festive family fun. William knew his characters rather well, and also how to make effective use of the medium of radio.
All of which is a reminder that first and foremost The Archers is an exercise in story-telling. The fact that it’s continued five or six times a week for more than 65 years would suggest it’s rather good at it.
Right now we’re hearing plenty on Lynda Snell’s latest Christmas extravaganza. As usual her artistic ambitions know no bounds, and this year she’s throwing herself into an Ambridge version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
No doubt her production will be full of the usual tears and tantrums. She’ll despair that her cast members have failed to catch her grand vision. But in the end, after all the trials and tribulations, it will probably turn out to be a great triumph. Or perhaps not.
Much as I look forward to Lynda’s directorial posturing, there have been moments this week when I wondered if Ambridge’s annual piece of theatre might be being overshadowed by events in the real world. It seemed that political performances in the Common and on College Green might become a bigger draw even than the Ambridge Christmas Show.
As I listened to Lynda fretting over the health-and-safety objections to putting on the show in David’s barn at Brookfield, I couldn’t help wondering if – at this great moment in our history – the show might be coming over as a rather quaint wireless anachronism. A throw-back to the time of the Billy Cotton Band Show and the Navy Lark.
And then we crossed to Home Farm and poor Jennifer’s worries over the imminent house-move. I realised I needn’t have worried. Here this was the perfect metaphor for Brexit. Jennifer was the broken-hearted remainer being separated from the thing she loved most by an outlandish event no one could have predicted. In this case not a referendum vote but the anti-social act of husband Brian almost 40 years ago. He allowed persons unknown to dump toxic waste on his land in return for an illegal payment.
And so the great separation of Jennifer from her home was set in train all those years ago. Maybe that’s why The Archers thrives. When it comes to really long-running storylines there’s nothing to touch it. And the pictures are great too.
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.