60 things you never knew you wanted to know about The Archers

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As Britain's longest-running soap celebrates its 60th birthday, Rebecca Gonsalves gives an everyday guide to its country folk

1.The pilot episode of The Archers, set in the village of Ambridge, was broadcast on the Midlands Home Service on 29 May 1950, going nationwide on 1 January 1951.

2. The opening lines were: Dan: "And a happy new year to you all."

Doris: "A very happy new year, Dan."

Dan: "Thanks, mother. If it's as good as the last 'un I'll be satisfied."

And thus a broadcasting legend was born.

3. It is the world's longest-running drama. American soap Guiding Light ran for 72 years but was taken off the air after only 15,762 episodes, whereas The Archers will broadcast its 16,300th episode tomorrow.

4. The Archers' theme tune, "Barwick Green", composed in 1924 by Arthur Wood, has been played over 76,800 times. In 1972, the Somerset folk group The Yetties recorded a version which now accompanies the Sunday omnibus edition. The tune is so reminiscent of quaint English village life that Billy Connolly called for it to replace the national anthem.

5. 1952 saw the village's first major disaster when a jet crashed into a lower field of the Archer family's Brookfield Farm.

6. Phil Archer became a household name on 22 September 1955, when his wife, Grace, died in his arms after trying to save her horses from a stable fire. BBC executives claimed the occurrence of the first death in The Archers on the night ITV was launched was a mere coincidence.

7. The BBC switchboard was jammed for 48 hours after the landmark episode, which reached an audience of 20 million.

8. For many, the late Norman Painting's portrayal of patriarch Phil Archer was the embodiment of the perfect rural Englishman. Originally involved as an agricultural storyline researcher for "The Archers of Wimberton Farm", Painting went on to be celebrated in the Guinness Book of Records for playing the same role, without a break, for more than 50 years. He died in October 2009.

9. Writing under the pen name Bruno Milna, Painting wrote 1,198 Archers scripts between 1966 and 1982, frequently trying to write out his own character so that he could have a break.

10. Phil Archer's favourite hymn, "Waiting for a Wonder", was composed by Painting, a keen musician who was often responsible for the organ playing attributed to his character.

11. The first Archers birth was on 16 February 1951, when Peggy Archer (now Woolley) gave birth to her son Tony. Tony Archer went on to marry and have three children of his own, one of whom is currently pregnant by artificial insemination.

12. Memorable Scene I: Tony's elder son John died in a tractor accident in 1998. His father found his body, already cold.

13. Memorable Scene II: in 2000, listeners heard married publican Sid Perks, then married to Kathy, get steamy in the shower with country singer Jolene Rogers.

14. Historic First I: the first illegitimate Ambridge baby was Adam Macy, born on 22 June 1967 to Tony's sister Jennifer.

15. Historic first II: Adam and partner Ian, the chef at local posh hotel Grey Gables, were joined in the village's first civil partnership in December 2006.

16. Homophobia: Sid resigned the captaincy of the local cricket team when he discovered team-mate Adam was gay. The late landlord also had various run-ins with the gay couple who ran rival drinking establishment The Cat and Fiddle.

17. Racism: in 1995, Ugandan Asian lawyer Usha Gupta was the victim of a prolonged series of racially motivated attacks by a local gang. Fellow villager Roy Tucker was revealed to be a member, a fact of which he is still ashamed.

18. Sex discrimination: In 1996 some residents were appalled by the appointment of the parish's first female vicar, Janet Fisher. Peggy, played by June Spencer, now the sole remaining member of the original cast, refused to attend church because of the decision.

19. Bigotry: in 2008, Usha, a Hindu, was again the victim when one time friend turned love rival Shula Hebden-Lloyd reacted unhappily to the news that she wasto marry motorcycle-riding vicar Alan Franks.

20. Snobbery: Jennifer Archer was appalled when her daughter Alice secretly married working-class Chris Carter, meaning that Jennifer would be related to the low-life Horrobins.

21. Silent voices: more than 500 characters, well-known to the audience, never utter a word. One such character is Freda Fry, cook at village pub The Bull and faithful wife of farm worker Bert Fry.

22. Rustic voices: Walter Gabriel, with his catchphrase "My old pal, my old beauty", used to be the voice of the local yokel. His straw-strewn mantle has now passed toJoe Grundy.

23. Birmingham voices: Hayley, Roy Tucker's wife, and Vicky, Mike Tucker's second wife, both have Brummie accents. Lucy Davis, daughter of Jasper Carrott and the actress who played receptionist Dawn in The Office, played the role of Hayley for several years.

24. Middle-class voices: for an everyday story of country folk, the Archers boasts a fair few posh accents. Pat Archer, Shula Hebden Lloyd, Debbie Aldridge, Caroline Stirling and Jennifer Aldridge are indistinguishable to the uninitiated.

25. Crime...In 2002 Jazzer, the Scottish milkman, overdosed on the horse tranquilliser ketamine obtained from the local vet, Theo.

26...and punishment. In 2009 Matt Crawford was imprisoned for fraud. Career criminal Clive Horrobin has been in prison for deeds including armed robbery in 1993, which led to Ambridge busybody Susan Carter being jailed for six months for harbouring her fugitive brother.

27. Fake history I: The Archers may only date back to 1951, but the parish church, St Stephen's, dates back to AD540, dedicated to St Stephen in 1291.

28. Fake history II: Ambridge is "mentioned" in The Domesday Book as "The Prior of St Mary's, Worcester, holds Ambridge with one berewick."

29. The programme has been made in Birmingham since the first episode. Ambridge is notionally situated about 30 miles away.

30. After Harold Macmillan was forced to sack members of his Cabinet in 1962, he said: "Interfering with the Cabinet is as serious as interfering with The Archers."

31. Celebrity fans include Ian Rankin, Joanna Trollope, Stephen Fry and Jo Brand.

32. In 1984 Princess Margaret guest-starred to celebrate the centenary of the NSPCC.

33. To make the sound of a lamb being born, the sound effects person squelches their hand in a pot of yoghurt, then throws a wet towel on to some old audio tape.

34. Esther Rantzen and Terry Wogan provided the sound effects for the 10,000th episode.

35. Members of The Archers cast start their acting careers early. Sam Rowley was two days old when he started playing Daniel Hebden.

36. The 15,000th episode was marked with the climax of a will-they-won't-they dalliance between married dairy farmer Ruth Archer and herdsman Sam Batton. In the end, Ruth went home.

37. Language! Phil Archer was the first to swear, losing his temper with nephew Tony and calling him a "bloody fool".

38. More language! Matt Crawford told rival Brian Aldridge to "piss off" on 15 May 2009. It sparked 13 official complaints.

39. For more than 30 years the Sunday omnibus was introduced by Tom Forrest with the words "Morning All".

40. Bridge Farm's 168 acres, owned by Tony and Pat Archer, have been organic since 1984.

41. Ambridge is in the fictional county of Borsetshire.

42. In March 2008, Ambridge became a Transition Town, in which residents can trade goods or services for TEAs (Transition Equivalent in Ambridge).

43. Charles Collingwood and Judy Bennett, who play Brian Aldridge and Shula Hebden-Lloyd, are married in real life.

44. Real-life events can involve last-minute rewrites to work in news such as the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother and the engagement of Prince William.

45. A month of Archers episodes are recorded over six days, once a month.

46. The Archers became the first BBC audio drama available to download as a podcast in daily episodes or weekly omnibus form.

47. Ryan Kelly, who plays milkman Jazzer McCreary, is the UK's first blind soap star. Born without eyes, he is the only Archers cast member who learns their lines before recording.

48. The Bull, the village pub, is based on The Old Bull, in Inkberrow, Worcestershire. Sid, the landlord, was killed off in June this year. Mystery surrounds the departure of actor Alan Devereux, who "decided to retire".

49. The local ale is called Shires, regional cheese is Borsetshire Blue and the Borchester Beauty is a variety of apple.

50. Richard Attlee (Kenton Archer) is the grandson of the former prime minister Clement Attlee.

51. Kenton's younger brother David is played by Tim Bentinck, aka the 12th Earl of Portland.

52. David's Geordie wife, Ruth, is played by Felicity Finch, a BBC journalist who has been on assignment to Afghanistan.

53. In June 2009, Jill Archer unsuccessfully entered the Anthony Gormley "One & Only" project. Instead Ambridge had its own plinth at the summer fête.

54. Gormley himself turned up at the fête, one of many celebrity appearances that include DJ John Peel, Morse author Colin Dexter, designer Zandra Rhodes, Dame Edna Everage and Alan Titchmarsh.

55. Ambridge boasts a local cricket team run by vet Alistair Lloyd.

56. Another annual event is the village pantomime, directed by Lynda Snell. This year, in a break from tradition, the principal boy is being played by Harry the milkman, and his love interest by Fallon – who fancies Harry.

57. The village website is run by Jennifer Aldridge, replicatedby the BBC at www.ambridgevillage.co.uk.

58. Philip Molloy, who plays Will Grundy, is the son of Terry Molloy, who plays Mike Tucker.

59. Editor Vanessa Whitburn has worked on the show since 1992.

60. There have been incidents of arson, fraud, rape, adultery and theft, but there has never been a murder in Ambridge. Not yet.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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