RADIO / How Lynda and Eddie keep us at it

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LAST YEAR on a Greek island I met an exile who had not been back to England for three years. Within seconds, we were deep in conversation. A French woman came up and asked how long we had known each other. When she heard that it was only two minutes, she was amazed. How did we have so many friends in common? She had heard us discussing the repercussions of Dave's affair with Kathy, whether Sid had forgiven her and how the gruesome Lucy was getting on at university. We stopped and looked at her, both feeling quite unequal to the task of explaining Ambridge to a foreigner.

The Jesuits promise that a child presented to them at the age of seven is theirs for life. It is like that with The Archers. Radio 4's old warhorse of a daily serial is fiercely addictive and its addicts often start young - the infant Vanessa Whitburn, who now produces the programme, had to sit silently through lunch as her grandparents listened: she never looked back. Universities are full of junkies and the BBC maintains that the Sunday omnibus edition has the youngest audience of any of their programmes.

If you've not had your first fix, it's a good moment to try. There's a new landowner arrived in the village and he's busily being introduced, which gives potential converts a chance to learn who's who. You know, 'Mr Pemberton, have you met my mother Peggy Woolley, my brother Tony Archer and Robin Stokes, the vicar-cum-vet who's engaged to Caroline Bone?', that kind of thing. Rapidly you'll develop the technique of perfect recall of the family tree and your life will be transformed.

Even our French eavesdropper might find it easier to understand soon. Last week saw the triumph of the scheme to twin the place with Meyruelle, supposedly in France. This could have members of the Archers fan club following the Mayle train across the Channel, the way they already tour the Midlands in coaches, hoping for a glimpse of Eddie Grundy in his cowboy hat and a nice cup of tea with Jill at Brookfield. Meanwhile, the twinning is providing some vintage jokes. Lynda Snell (yes, with a 'y', as she often

reminds us) speaks French with the precision of Chaucer's Prioress. When she announces that Meyruelle produces Roquefort cheese, Clarrie, desperate to keep up, murmurs 'Rocky 4, film innit? Eddie saw it.'

Tuesday saw them urging each other to adopt the Gallic way of life, 'like spitting, you mean?' No, no, kissing on both cheeks. By Wednesday, confused pensioners thought they should be practising French-kissing, 'to get us in the mood'. Then came the first hint of a backlash, in dark threats of Gitane-smoking, garlic-chewing Frenchies. Soon, the shop was overrun with demands for what morose Mike calls puns o'chocolate. We regulars can't wait to hear chef Jean-Paul's reaction to it all.

The secret of the programme's phenomenal success is probably the joy of gossip. These characters become so familiar that, with other aficionados, you can confidently scorn and revile them, or declare them venal, prurient and thick without feeling guiltily malicious. There is much less 'pure' agriculture nowadays. Gone are the days of covert warnings about the warble-fly: a recent mention of his farm from Brian provoked a snappy 'Shut up about your silage' from his wife.

Instead, the issues are remarkably topical. We've had irresponsible teenagers going joy-riding and experimenting with unsuitable sexual partners (John and Sharon's first embrace was so squelchy that the producers decided to cut the soundtrack, leaving an alarmingly pregnant silence); we've had IVF in time for National Fertility Week and on the very Friday that statistics were released about the increase in rural crime, there was a raid on the village shop that left the nation on tenterhooks as to whether Jack would survive the weekend.

But in the end it's the writing and the characters that make it so good. Their very names are inspired. Only a horrible Horobin could have led that dastardly raid and fathered Sharon's little Kylie; only the tedious Tuckers could have offspring called Roy and Brenda; only Lynda could be lumbered with unspeakable stepdaughters called Leonie and Coriander. She herself is the finest invention of all. Arrived from Sunningdale where they do everything better, she is a pretentious pain in the community neck, interfering, insensitive and sometimes, dammit, right. She is the very essence of English provincial life as I discovered while reading Emma the other day. Lynda Snell is a dead ringer for the appalling Mrs Elton in that novel.

Jane Austen, who knew everything about everything, was in Ambridge ahead of us all.

'The Archers' is at 7.05pm, Mon to Fri, Radio 4; omnibus edition at 10.15am, Sun, Radio 4.

(Photograph omitted)