An everyday story of Malaysian folk

Who can developing countries look to for health education and safe sex advice? The Archers, of course. By Chris Arnott
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The Independent Culture
A STUNNED silence descended on the Ministry of Information's training centre in Phnom Penh after 18 would-be scriptwriters had listened to an episode of Radio Four's The Archers. Five of them could follow it in English. The rest had scripts translated into Khmer, the national language of Cambodia but not a natural vehicle for the agricultural cadences of Eddie Grundy or Bert Fry.

This was the episode where Alistair, the vet, confronts Richard, the doctor. Richard has been sleeping with Alistair's girlfriend, the hitherto saintly Shula. In the middle of the emotional turmoil, Richard finds time to take blood from Kate to determine whether or not Roy is the father of her baby. Just an everyday story of country folk in Middle England. But what relevance could it possibly have to this far less comfortable region of South-east Asia?

More than you might think. Kerry Davies, a senior producer on The Archers, recently spent two and a half weeks deconstructing Britain's longest-running soap opera for the benefit of Cambodians who want to make their own radio drama.

"I had to point out that it's not usual for doctors to go to bed with their patients in my country," he grins. "But this was a good episode to analyse because the structure was superb, and the scene with Kate offered us the chance to show how quick and comparatively painless blood tests are."

He went to Cambodia at the invitation of Health Unlimited, a charity which runs health education projects in developing countries. Radio drama is seen as an ideal medium in a land where its audience reach is far higher than that of television.

But Cambodian listeners are used to stylised, epic fantasies. "The actors tend to burst into song at regular intervals," says Davies, who knew that injecting some realism would be a daunting task.

"There were some health professionals and some short-story writers in the script-writing class, but nobody had written anything of any length. Luckily, they were quick learners.

"After they'd listened to the whole episode, we went through it, bit by bit, to show them how a story was built, how characters were introduced and how you could hook the listener to tune in again."

This is hardly the first time that The Archers has been used as a role model for radio soaps in unlikely settings. The BBC studio in Birmingham is regularly visited by health educationalists from around the globe. And a former editor, Liz Rigbey, travelled to Russia in 1992 to advise on Dom Syem ("House Seven"), a drama set in a Moscow apartment building and designed to convey subliminal messages about the joys of the free market. It boasts a sort of Muscovite Eddie Grundy, a plumber with a taste for vodka, and it's still running daily.

Whether the free-market message is as enthusiastically received as it once was is a matter for conjecture. But Davies has no doubt that radio drama can be an effective vehicle for propaganda. Indeed, that's how The Archers started, back in 1951, seven years before he was born.

The first Archers producer, Godfrey Baseley, was expected by the BBC to include a certain amount of information from the Ministry of Agriculture (an obligation which continued until 1972). Today, most press releases from the Ministry join those from other vested interests - in the overflowing waste paper bins.

"We'd run screaming from including something for educational reasons, because our listeners are too sophisticated; they'd see it coming a mile off," says Davies. But he was more than happy to offer his expertise to spread vital information in less developed parts of the world. "Radio drama saves lives," he says with some conviction. He cites as an example New Home, New Life, which was devised by the BBC World Service in the bowels of Bush House, translated into Pashto and Persian and transmitted from Pakistan over the border into Afghanistan. Recent surveys have credited the show with increased awareness of landmines, child immunisation programmes and the correct way to breast-feed without passing on TB. In Cambodia, one child in five dies before its fifth birthday, and Aids is a major problem among the adult population. Up to 40 per cent of prostitutes there are thought to be HIV positive. What's more, condoms are considered to be "unmanly".

To advise on how radio drama could begin to confront such deeply-engrained cultural attitudes, Davies went back to the very roots of The Archers.

"Even in the early days," he says, "the farming content was only 10 per cent. There was another 15 per cent on countryside stuff - `oh, look, the catkins are out' - but the rest was drama, romance and comedy to keep people listening."

Whether it's farming information in Britain or health education in Cambodia, the same principle applies, he says. "You can use propaganda only as a small proportion of the programme. Otherwise it's not drama at all, just a washing-line with messages pegged up."

For archetypal characters, too, Davies went back to the laws of Godfrey. "Baseley's original model was built around the father and mother figures (Dan and Doris), the young lovers (Phil and Grace, then Jill), a comic character (Walter Gabriel) and the irritant (Peggy's first husband, Jack Archer). The gossip, the ne'er-do-well, and friends of the young lovers were subsidiary."

Alas, there is no Cambodian equivalent of The Bull or The Cat and Fiddle in Ambridge. Davies's initial advice, that the characters should gather in a bar, were met with sceptical looks from his hosts. "Bars in their country have sexual connotations," he says. "So we decided on a market, as in EastEnders, where characters gather, gossip is exchanged and the plot can be advanced. There's also a restaurant, run by a friend of the lovers."

In one of the storylines Davies has suggested, the restaurateur gives some man-to-man advice to the comic character, who has a sexually-transmitted disease. "It's only a small part of the plot," he says, "but it shows that medical advice doesn't have to be a lecture from your doctor. Here, it's one young bloke prodding another in the chest and saying `Look, matey, if you're going to sleep around, be careful'."

The setting is Poi Pet, a small town near the Thailand border with a reputation for drug smuggling. Borchester it ain't. But if Davies's suggestions are accepted, Poi Pet In My Heart will start broadcasting in March. A 10-minute drama will be slotted into a half-hour programme for the 15- to-24 age group, broadcast twice a week.

And if it runs for anywhere near as long as The Archers, it could save more than a few lives.

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