An Ambridge too far? An everyday tale of rebranding for The Archers

'Archers' fans are agog for the new youth-oriented version of their favourite series, which starts today. Paul Vallely reports

Five million Archers addicts will find out at 10 o'clock this morning whether the dumpty-dumpty-dumpty-dum signature tune of the world's longest running drama can survive in the wild. The BBC's most popular radio soap opera is spilling outside the safe sanctuary of Radio 4 with a spin-off series which will bring to centre-stage some of the peripheral personalities from the main programme. Even some non-speaking characters will find their voice.

But as for the signature tune, like so much else about the new series, Ambridge Extra, the BBC has played its cards fairly close to its collective chest.

That's not surprising given the massive anti-climax of The Archers' last great venture into the wider consciousness. To mark its 60th anniversary in January, the programme's editor, Vanessa Whitburn, announced that Ambridge would be "shaken to the core" by a traumatic development – which turned out to be the unconvincing slip from the roof of his stately home by the series' loveable toff, Nigel Pargetter.

But the death of the great man was a bit of a publicity disaster, with Ms Whitburn herself letting slip the secret in a radio interview – and with the listenership divided between those who regarded it as melodramatic hokum and those who were outraged by the unnecessary PR-driven death of a much-loved character. Internet groups sprang up with devotees declaring their intent to boycott the programme.

So this morning Ambridge Extra begins on the old BBC Radio 7, which has been re-branded as Radio 4 Extra in an attempt to tempt stalwart listeners across to the new digital station. The BBC's head of radio, Tim Davie, has made no secret of the fact that he wants to boost the uptake of digital among the vast sections of the population who do not own a DAB radio.

Only a third of adults do at present, and the figure is particularly low among under-25 year-olds – which may explain why Ambridge Extra will be focusing on The Archers' younger characters. The opening episode will focus on the antics of Alice Carter, "in a romantic mood" away from her young husband Chris, at university. It will also reveal the activities of the cider-swigging teenager Jamie behind his mother's back.

The script has been designed, writer Tim Stimpson says, so that it can be followed by listeners unfamiliar with the main storyline. But it will offer "an extra little treat" for Archers addicts.

The new programme will be broadcast on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am, but it will have strategically-timed repeats so that Archers listeners on Radio 4 can switch across straight after the lunchtime broadcast, doubling their daily dose.

Ambridge Extra will have an initial series of 13 episodes, each 15 minutes long, with another series in the autumn. "You can continue to listen to The Archers without missing anything essential," says the show's other writer, Keri Davies. "But if you follow both, then you'll get a deeper insight into what's going on in our characters' lives." She says the spin-off will be faster, pacier and punchier. "It zips along quite fast, so it should be a lively listen."

Traditionalists may feel that there has been a little too much zipping already in recent times. The unhurried appeal of The Archers was always that it was "an everyday story of country folk". But lately there seems to be rather more happening than most of us would find comfortable in our everyday round. Something a little less event-filled and more character-driven might better fit the bill.

There are other risks too. We may also discover that the programme's silent characters were silent for the good reason that they did not have much worth saying. And it may well be that what happens on-stage in the new series complicates the back-story of the characters in the main programme to such a degree that some plotlines may become even more sketchy and unconvincing.

Times change, even in rural Borsetshire – although we must hope not too much. Alice's new university housemate turns out to be a character named Chaz, who comes from a well-to-do family, likes cocktails and a good night out but dislikes oiks and being bored.

Readers who are longer in the tooth may recall that the late-lamented Nigel would once have merited pretty much that description. In his younger days his idea of a good time invariably involved a gorilla suit and several bottles of champagne.

Yet even Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, shed a tear when the middle-aged Nigel slid from the roof of Lower Loxley, as she disclosed when she made a guest appearance on The Archers to mark its diamond jubilee last month.

She, and we, may warm to young Chaz yet.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea