Ambridge amours

Shula's Story by Joanna Toye, BBC Books, pounds 9.99; An `Archers' addict confesses. By Sue Gaisford
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The Independent Culture
What do Pedro from Spain, Nick Wearing and Charles Hodgeson have in common? No idea? How about Robin Catchpole, Martin Lambert and Bill Morrison? Getting warmer? Try Neil Carter, Nigel Pargetter, Simon Pemberton and Mark Hebdon. If you have ever listened to Radio 4's best-loved and longest-running soap, you must be there by now. Yes, they have all been in love with Shula. Shula is the golden girl of The Archers, victim of a thousand disasters, whose lambent beauty and indomitable courage have enslaved these men, and millions of enraptured listeners, through a good 20 years of devotion.

Such a heroine deserves special attention and now she has acquired her own book. It is extraordinary. You can't call it a novel, though it is undoubtedly fiction. Nor is it strictly biography - for the same reason. It is really a kind of historical romance, firmly based on life in Ambridge, but decorated with visual details.

You could certainly agree with the clothes in which Joanna Toye dresses the cast. It is highly likely that the elegant Caroline Bone, when confronted with the prospect of having to accompany Shula into labour, would cast about for some Jasper Conran splash-proof co-ordinates to slip into. And of course Jennifer Aldridge, the rich farmer's wife with literary pretensions, would wear a silk scarf with her Puffa jacket. But would Jennifer really offer her distraught daughter some Florentines "still warm from the oven"? Come along, if they were really warm, the chocolate would be runny. Even Jennifer should know that. Still, Toye hits a fine authentic note with her description of the ghastly Bunty Hebden's lounge, with its matching salmon-pink soft furnishings and its gas log-effect fire.

When you read this kind of thing, you catch yourself wondering if she made it up or did Shula herself describe the room, in a rare bitchy moment that you might have missed on air. An invaluable companion to Toye's book is The Book of the Archers (Michael Joseph, pounds 9.99), written by three of its longest serving actors, which offers encyclopaedic information about its 44 years of existence. As Toye describes the night when Shula, amazingly, lost her virginity to creepy Simon Parker in a Netherbourne cornfield, a glance at this Bible will immediately inform you that yes, it really did happen, back in 1977. Shula, now a dewy combination of Doris Day and Delia Smith, was once a right little goer. My goodness, she even kissed Tim Beecham. She even smoked. But that was all long ago. Nearly half Toye's book is taken up with the recent problems of Shula's fertility. Here you can re-live the agony of her ectopic pregnancy, her decision to try for IVF treatment, its initial failure and subsequent success, with added lurid details about her - hang on a moment while I spell this - hysterosalpingrams. You can suffer again through the terrible night of her husband's sudden death, though you can also remember what an almighty bore he was, despite the fact that he read the Independent. In this chapter, you are irresistibly reminded of the stupendous acting of Judy Bennett that had millions of us weeping in cars and kitchens at his loss.

And, reader, I'm ashamed to say that I wept again, though whether my tears sprang from the memory of that performance or from the skill of Joanna Toye in retelling the story, it is impossible to say. And here's the problem with reviewing such a book. Faithful listeners will sigh at the suppression of vast chunks of plot, and quibble over details. We may pine for a glimpse of the permanently plastered Pargetters or of lush Lilian, but we are grateful for the chance to wallow again in all the drama of the life of Ambridge's resident saint. Anyone who had never heard of the place - if such a person exists - might well enjoy it as a slightly implausible novel, but he would miss so much. Only a hardened addict could appreciate the fact that the magnificently frightful Lynda Snell is mentioned only once, and that is as a figment of Shula's nightmares.