Although there had by then been a few protests about GM crops, it would be several months before the controversy gripped the national imagination. Yet by last Wednesday, when the jury foreman at Tommy Archer's trial declared him not guilty of trashing a field of experimental GM rape, life had already caught up with art. Last July Lord Melchett and 27 other Greenpeace activists were arrested for allegedly damaging growing GM crops, and a pre-trial hearing is due next week.
Like most of the four million plus regular listeners to the serial, the Greenpeace defendants will have let loose a collective whoop of delight when the Archer verdict was announced after two days of tense deliberation in the jury room. It was the climax to what had turned into one of the strongest plot lines ever to emerge from Ambridge.
Since its launch in 1951, The Archers has never been a cosy cottage drama, steeped in chintz and hollyhocks. Part of its point has been to illuminate the real issues that affect farmers and country dwellers. As it happens, rural concerns have risen to the top of the national agenda as the century comes to a close - not just GM crops, but foxhunting, BSE, building on greenfield sites and other thorny topics. All this gives the serial extra relevance.
Graham Harvey, a Somerset-based agricultural journalist, is paid to keep his eye on such things. So when he told Vanessa Whitburn, the programme's editor, what he had in mind, she did not dismiss it out of hand, despite being only dimly aware of the issue.
"He said it was already bubbling away in the countryside and looked as though it could have momentum," she recalls. "Of course we didn't know then just how much controversy it would generate, and we didn't know how we were going to handle it."
She asked the scriptwriters to introduce the GM issue gently into the programme. At about this time two women were charged with allegedly damaging crops in Devon. The Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the case in October, before it came to trial, but it gave Ms Whitburn the idea of how to dramatise the subject.
She had already decided that the only person in Ambridge who could credibly grow an experimental crop was Brian Aldridge, the village's biggest farmer and an enthusiast of large-scale agri-business. The people most likely to be opposed to it were his brother-in-law Tony Archer and his wife Pat, who run a smaller organic farm nearby with their children Helen and Tommy. (Their elder son, John, was killed in a tractor accident last year.)
We felt that Tommy, with his whole future threatened, would have the passion and determination to get involved with some kind of eco-group," says Ms Whitburn. "We couldn't see Tony doing it. Pat might have done it years ago, but not now."
After Tommy had been arrested the trial had to be prepared. That was when Ms Whitburn and the scriptwriters went into high gear, seeking advice from a huge range of experts both on the law and on the scientific issues surrounding GM foods.
Among them were the prosecuting counsel in the aborted Devon case, as well as Mike Schwarz, a solicitor who has acted for several environmental campaigners, and who had to withdraw from The Archers advisory team when engaged by Lord Melchett in real life. There were also meetings with representatives of bio-tech companies, including Monsanto, who put the case for GM experiments.
On air, the advice of some of these authorities was put into the mouths of the technical experts lined up by Usha Gupta, Tommy's solicitor, to persuade the court why he felt he had no alternative but to destroy the crops that he thought were threatening his parents' farm. All this went to support the defence plea of "lawful excuse".
So much hinged on the verdict, in terms of the BBC's obligation to be impartial, that James Boyle, head of Radio 4, and his commissioning editor Caroline Raphael insisted on being consulted before agreeing that the culprit should be acquitted. Ms Whitburn also had to endure a grilling by Phil Harding, controller of editorial policy, to be sure she had covered all the bases.
"We knew we were in for a lot of research," she says. "The power of the story for me and the team was that it allowed us to debate the rights and wrongs of GM technology as it relates to food. And what I liked about it was that it also let us consider the even wider debate about the rights and wrongs of direct action in a democracy."
The episode broadcast the evening before the jury reached its verdict was set entirely in the jury room, with the opposing arguments batted back and forth across the table. Even after the result was known, some Ambridge villagers were making the point that as an admitted law-breaker Tommy should have been made to serve his time - among them Susan Carter, who was imprisoned a few years ago for abetting her brother after he had escaped from custody.
There is no doubt, though, that the verdict was broadly popular with listeners. Hedli Niklaus, the actress who plays Cathy Perks in the serial and who also runs the fan club Archers Addicts, reports that the overwhelming reaction of her members was favourable.
But will it affect the verdict in the upcoming Greenpeace case? Will jury members who are also Archers listeners see Tommy's acquittal as a precedent, and be inclined towards a not guilty verdict of their own?
A Greenpeace spokeswoman declined to be drawn on that but conceded that many of the 28 defendants would have been listening to Wednesday's episode and been pleased with the result. "Of course it's fiction," she said, "but it's good to see that the scriptwriters have obviously taken notice of public opinion."
THE STORY SO FAR
In August 1998 Linda Snell, the Ambridge busybody, was taking a ride in a balloon when she saw some unusual activity in one of Brian Aldridge's fields. She snooped around and heard on the grapevine that the land was being prepared for an experimental crop of GM oilseed rape. It was eventually sown last February.
When young Tommy Archer, Brian's nephew, heard the news he was worried about what would happen if the pollen strayed on to his family's organic farm. So he joined a gang of activists and set out to attack the crop by night, causing extensive damage.
After refusing to shop his friends, he was committed for trial by a magistrate who initially would not grant him bail on the grounds that he might offend again. Usha Gupta, the local solicitor, eventually secured his release and prepared his defence, relying heavily on expert witnesses who spelled out the dangers of pollen spreading from the rape to other crops.
The trial was highly charged and at one stage a conviction seemed likely. But one eloquent jury member, the mother of a boy with asthma, persuaded some doubters of the dangers, as she saw them, of GM crops, and a majority verdict of not guilty was returned. Tommy and his friends were jubilant; but uncle Brian was not amused.Reuse content