Two decades after the first gay character moved in to Albert Square and 13 years after Anna Friel's lesbian kiss on Brookside Close, The Archers achieved a soap-opera first by featuring a gay civil ceremony last night.
In what is being hailed as a momentous media moment, the BBC Radio 4 show's gay couple, Adam Macy and Ian Craig, "tied the knot" in an emotional ceremony in Ambridge.
Over a quarter of a million extra listeners were expected to have tuned in for the 15-minute episode at 7pm. They listened to the culmination of a two-year romance that took off in the middle of a strawberry field, when the lovers shared their first kiss in April 2004.
Set in the fictional rural community, the soap has followed the fortunes of the middle-class Archer family who own and manage Brookfield Farm, which has been passed down the generations.
For many, the civil ceremony was more than just a modern twist to radio's oldest soap, created in 1951 to disseminate information to farmers. The show has come to represent the last bastion of Middle England.
Adam and Craig's union, for which both actors dressed in traditional morning suits, was treated with far less sensationalism when compared to representations of gay characters in the media a few decades ago, according to Joseph Galliano, the editor of Gay Times.
He commended the writers and producers of The Archers for a "much more rounded and thoughtful" portrayal of the gay couple. "In terms of The Archers being the last bastion of middle England, for the relationship to be there in the middle of that is a wonderful thing and sends out a powerful message.
"What's different about this relationship compared with other gay relationships in soaps is that it's longer sustained and very much part of the community. They are not treated any differently to how other characters are treated," he said.
He added that the civil partnership ceremony, in some ways, helped to defy the stereotype of the rural community as closed and homophobic, as well as the stereotype of homosexuals as "urban gay boys".
Lucas North, a spokesman for The Archers, said viewing figures for last night's episode provided "the highlight of the year". The show attracts an average five million listeners per episode.
"This is the culmination of the longest-running gay relationship in radio soap history, as far as we know. It's been going on for two and a half years. It's also been one year since the civil partnership legislation came into being in this country and they have been far more successful than the Government anticipated, so it's nice that this storyline shows the ceremony as popular and real," he said.
But the show's more progressive plotlines have not been universally welcomed.
Stephen Kennedy, who plays Ian, said in an interview this week: "When Adam and Ian first kissed, The Telegraph wrote this incredibly homophobic article about how The Archers had become sensationalised and was betraying its listeners. I thought that was incredible enough but, two years later, the real-life furore that's greeted their decision to have a civil partnership has been even more vociferous.
"Quite apart from the letters pages of the right-wing media, a poll on The Archers' own fan website found that of nearly 7,000 respondents, one fifth thought same-sex marriages were an inappropriate topic for the programme. I find it incredible."
The soaps that came out of the closet
In 1986, Colin Russell (played by Michael Cashman) was a yuppie graphics designer who moved to Albert Square, where he met Barry and fell in love. After Barry left to join the merchant marines, Colin met Guido, who eventually moved in with him.
Zoe Tate (Leah Bracknell), daughter of Frank, came out as a lesbian in June 1993. the character Richard appeared in several episodes as Zoe's first gay friend and two of Zoe's lovers appeared in several episodes. Suzie took Zoe away from Emma, just as the two were about to get 'married'.
Beth Jordache, (Anna Friel) had relationships with a confused female neighbour and a lesbian college lecturer in 1993. She later died in prison. A second couple, Lindsey and Shelley, was introduced later.
After 38 years on the air, and 12 years after EastEnders introduced its first gay character, this soap took the plunge, not with a gay or lesbian character but with Hayley, (Julie Hesmondhalgh), a male-to-female transsexual.Reuse content