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.

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