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'Archers' fans may feel deflated, but they should have faith

Not shaken and only slightly stirred was the verdict of Archers fans last night as the much-hyped 60th anniversary programme culminated in a grisly accident involving Nigel Pargetter.

In perhaps the most eagerly awaited radio moment for years, an episode which the programme's editor had promised would "shake Ambridge to the core", Nigel fell from the roof of his ancestral home Lower Loxley while trying to remove a banner. David Archer, who had suggested the venture, apparently remained on the roof. It was a distinct echo of the day in 1955 when the BBC had Grace Archer killed in a barn fire to coincide with the launch of ITV.

At the same time, anorexic single mother Helen was rushed to hospital with pre-eclampsia and gave birth to a son, thus healing a rift between her father, Tony, who was emotionally opposed to the baby's conception by anonymous sperm donation.

But for fans of the world's longest-running soap opera, there was a guilty sense of anticlimax. Was that all? Listeners who had joined in a day-long tweet-along responded with a mix of sarcasm and savagery. "Like England playing in the World Cup, promising a lot, delivering nothing," said one. Many had wanted unpopular figures like Ruth – reviled for her Geordie accent – or Helen to be sacrificed. Nigel, the amiable husband of Elizabeth and father of Freddy and Lily, was much-loved. "Nigel Pargiter [sic]! No!! No no no! Anyone but Nigel. *Palms to cheeks in Munch-like scream*," tweeted Stephen Fry.

Anniversaries in soap-land are traditionally celebrated with death or disaster – Coronation Street recently marked its half-century with a tram crash which wiped out some well-loved faces, EastEnders marked Christmas with a cot death, and a 747 landed on Emmerdale.

But generally The Archers prefers to get its kicks (and its audience spikes) from adultery, such as Ruth's near affair with cowman Sam, or Brian Aldridge and Siobhan Hathaway's steamy love triangle. A guest appearance by the Grim Reaper is not uncommon: Phil Archer died last year, as did Sid Perks, and Betty Tucker, Greg Turner and John Archer have all met their end in recent years, but death has rarely been used as a way to lift ratings.

Yet ever since Vanessa Whitburn, the editor for 20 years, let slip the idea of a storyline that would "shake Ambridge to the core", everywhere from Mumsnet and Twitter to Facebook and even the odd newspaper was rife with speculation. Suggestions included the siting of a new airport on Ambridge, necessitating the razing of the entire village, a gun massacre by rival brothers Ed and Will Grundy, or a suicide bombing.

The absence of an Ambridge Al-Qa'ida cell will please those fans who argue that The Archers should have nothing more earthshaking than a bust-up at The Bull to celebrate its anniversary, in keeping with its highly valued authenticity. For many of the five million who listen each week, The Archers has attained the status of a parallel universe, free from the rules that govern others soaps. "The great thing about The Archers is its ordinariness," said one contributor to the message board last night. "We don't need sensationalism. Leave that to EastEnders and Coronation Street."

Even if Nigel does die, it may not be the end of the affair. David could be charged with manslaughter, or his plummeting body might have landed on another character. Ms Whitburn said she wanted last night's events to shake Ambridge "profoundly and deeply" with repercussions that will "burn slowly". Given her track record, listeners should have faith. "It will still be affecting Ambridge in 10 years' time," she promised.