The Archers, Radio 4

Archive on 4: Radio Hollywood, Radio 4

From Borsetshire to Costa Rica – the action never lets up

It's part of any self-respecting radio reviewer's remit to drop in on The Archers at least once a year, and now's the time to do it, with the Lilian-and-Matt-on-the-run storyline reaching its climax. For those benighted souls unfamiliar with the intricacies of Borsetshire life, Lilian, the gin-soaked bar-room queen from Ambridge, a party girl with an erstwhile taste for toyboys, has revealed hidden depths since she got together with someone her own age, businessman Matt Crawford.

Never a total stranger to dodgy deals, he's been involved in a company fraud case with his business partner, "Chalky" Chalkman, and though he's not innocent, exactly, he's petrified that Chalky will manage to shift all the blame and make him the patsy. Matt may be a gruff, tough wheeler-dealer, but the prospect of prison has reduced him to a bit of a mess, and Lilian has been four-square behind him. With the court case looming, they scarpered to Costa Rica (no extradition treaty) – Matt to escape, Lilian hoping to drag him back to the courthouse in Felpersham.

The scenes from Central America were riveting, Lilian's misery piercing the fug of humidity. (Rainfall was a constant sound effect.) On Wednesday she headed out to the airport after a desperate parting. Just as she was struggling to put her bag in the overhead compartment, there was Matt, unable to live without her. With three flight connections, he had every chance to change his mind, but the next day he was in court, where Chalky caught everyone out by pleading guilty, and Matt went down for 18 months.

Meanwhile, Susan's been kicking up a fuss about her job in the village shop, which is looking down both barrels because Peggy, the owner, who was 85 on Friday and has more than enough to worry about with Jack's Alzheimer's, is thinking of selling up. And Will and Ed Grundy, Ambridge's very own Cain and Abel, came to blows in said shop over Ed's entirely justified threat to shove Will's Land Rover into a ditch with his tractor. "Er, that'll be £4.39," Susan's helper, Annette, intervened.

By the time you read this, Matt and Chalkie will be in chokey, Will may have killed Ed, or vice versa, and Susan may have bumped off one of the builders Brian Aldridge has been sending round to measure up the shop for a flat conversion, like a hangman shaking hands to determine body weight.

At nearly 16,000 episodes, The Archers is the world's longest-running soap opera – a term which owes more than a little to the Lux Radio Theater, which from 1934 to 1955 served up a weekly adaptation of one of the latest movies, introduced at first by Cecil B DeMille: "Greetings from Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen, greetings from this city of the fast fade-out." In Archive on 4 Jeffrey Richards told the story.

They made 926 of these movie adaptations, most of them sentimental stuff, family sagas, melodramas, love stories. There were only 22 Westerns, which generally depend on sweeping visuals. The ones that worked best were the close character studies, such as John Wayne in Red River, not action films stuffed with chases and battles. War-movie adaptations replaced big setpieces with narration and sound effects, again, focusing on the characters, showing off all that camaraderie and stoicism.

The synergy with Hollywood was total: the studios sold the scripts cheaply and encouraged the stars to take part. The productions were aimed squarely at a family audience, predominantly the women, who did, after all, have a monopoly on soap-buying. All-American values were plugged relentlessly: family life and married life, romantic love and mother love, duty, service, sacrifice – and soap. "Our story starts before the war," went the intro to It's a Wonderful Life, "when life was normal, shortages were generally unknown and simple luxuries, like Lux soap, were abundant. I won't say that's the only reason people said 'it's a wonderful life', but I do know from the thousands of letters in our files that they did say, 'it's a wonderful soap'." Just like The Archers.

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