Come back, Hob Hound of Edgley, all is forgiven

Sue Gaisford reads two warring accounts of radio's favourite agri- feminist soap
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The Independent Culture
The Archers: The True Story by William Smethurst, Michael O'Mara, pounds 16.99 The Archers: The Changing Face of Radio's Longest Running Drama by Vanessa Whitburn, Virgin, pounds 14.99

We've had murder and suicide, rape and armed robbery; we've had incest and insanity; we've had Alzheimer's and adultery. No, really, we have, in our own isolated rural backwater. Our village shop, our bus service and even our pub have closed down and we seldom bump into our neighbours because we're always in cars. In comparison with this reality, Ambridge, for all its dramas, can sometimes seem like an idyll of gentle harmony, an impossible dream of peaceful co-existence.

William Smethurst would not agree. He worked on The Archers for 11 years, leaving it in 1986 to preside over the death of Crossroads. His history of Ambridge, The Archers - The True Story culminates in a furious denunciation of its current "mixture of violence, melodrama and sensation...a ferment of greed, sexual passion, family discord, racial hatred and rampant, radical feminism". And he doesn't stop there. He condemns many of its early writers, editors and story-lines in similarly savage terms and declares that "Only during the Eighties" - when he was in charge - "was the programme different, attempting to engage listeners' interests".

And how did he do that? He thrilled them "with stories of the ghostly Hob Hound of Edgley; Nigel and Lizzie's love life; and the saga of the Over-Sixties missing tea money". Incidentally, he doesn't dwell on the other dramatic device with which his name is often associated, the story of the giant, exploding marrow.

There is precious little affection in this work. It is written in short, jerky chapters that bear a strange resemblance to familiar 15-minute episodes; they are full of jumbled stories and often end with portentous, mini cliff- hangers. "After Jennifer's Baby would come the story of What Happened to Jennifer's Baby" is one.

The most telling of these ends chapter 34. Underneath a rather scary photograph of himself he tells of the brief appearance and ignominious dismissal of an Ambridge character created after he left, whose name resembled his own. This man "departed Ambridge, muttering and snarling, and was heard of no more".

The main problem is that, however much he mutters and snarls, Smethurst has not decided whether or not any of it really matters. Is it just a radio programme, or is it a sacred icon? Will people listen if it remains harmless, genial and bucolic, or must it develop and reflect more accurately the preoccupations of real Nineties countryfolk? Should we - does he - really care? He pours scorn on what he claims was Gwen Berryman's delusion that she was in fact Doris Archer but, in the next breath, expresses outrage at the fact that Ruth Patterson, a subsequent editor, dared to kill off a loveable individual he had himself introduced - Jack Woolley's elderly bull-terrier, Captain.

In a way, you can't blame him. Half the nation seems to believe they all exist. Letters, telegrams, bouquets pour in to the characters at times of crisis, and in the Seventies, a deluded graffiti artist was moved to denounce the Archer granny on a wall in North London, with the words "Doris Archer is a Prude". Vanessa Whitburn's book, The Archers - The Changing Face of Radio's Longest Running Drama has a firmer grip on reality. She covers much of the same ground, though more sketchily, and includes pages of photographs and brief biographies of the actors as themselves, as well as in character.

This is a book for fans, glossy and accessible. Whitburn, prime target of Smethurst's scorn, is generous to him, praising him for the splendid social comedy he brought into the series, but she is also certain that stories need to be continually updated and new elements introduced. She aims to provide a rich mix of agriculture, humour and strong emotional complexity, and a good many listeners think she is doing pretty well. True, there are a lot of powerful women in Ambridge these days, but then we are all entitled to our dreams. Besides, some of us remember the late- lamented Aunt Laura, and they've never come tougher than her.