Go wild in the country

The Archers is essential listening for young urbanites, gaining 200,000 listeners for Radio 4 in the past year. The secret of its success used to lie in the soil; now, it's sex, sex and more sex. David Aaronovitch studies the quietly addictive nature of Ambridge

My daughter believes that people who listen to The Archers are really preparing for death. She cannot comprehend how her father and mother – always so busy – volunteer to spend time aurally attending to sound-effects of cows being milked by invisible actors. It must be (she probably intuits) part of a slowing-down of mental processes, a slowing-down that parallels the loss of physical function she observes in me when – every Saturday morning – we go to yoga together. I cannot do the backward frog, and my brain is flexible enough to cope with only the mildest soap opera.

My daughter believes that people who listen to The Archers are really preparing for death. She cannot comprehend how her father and mother – always so busy – volunteer to spend time aurally attending to sound-effects of cows being milked by invisible actors. It must be (she probably intuits) part of a slowing-down of mental processes, a slowing-down that parallels the loss of physical function she observes in me when – every Saturday morning – we go to yoga together. I cannot do the backward frog, and my brain is flexible enough to cope with only the mildest soap opera.

Darling first-born, I love you and esteem you, but – on this – pooh to you. More people in London (we found out this week) listen to Radio 4 than listen to your beloved Capital FM – and central to Radio 4 is the show you so disdain. And now your dad is going to try to explain to you why that is. This will be embarrassing for you, but, given that I shall be presenting a Channel5 programme on sex around the planet some time in the spring, you'd better toughen up, because things are going to get much worse.

Let me start with a distinction. I am not a "fan". I do not collect memorabilia, send off for Eddie Grundy's autograph or have the Archers website on my internet favourites list. That would be like nudism. Someone may quite enjoy being in the buff on a clothing-optional Greek beach but be mildly unsettled by people who are evangelistic about it. Some of the Spurs season-ticket-holders who sit near me at White Hart Lane are actually unhinged.

I inherited The Archers as most of us inherit our politics. It was passed on to me by my mother, along with a peculiar strangled laugh, a love of cinema and the recipe for macaroni cheese. It was on in the evening when we went upstairs (my mother was a keen send-to-bedder), and the music marked the moment when – at last – she had something to herself.

So, for me there has never been the problem of catching up with just who all these people are. I know that there have always been Archers at Brookfield; first Dan and Doris, then Phil and Jill, now David and Ruth. Ralph Bellamy married Lillian Archer and lived in the Dower House many, many years ago. Honeysuckle Cottage, Home Farm, the Bull, Lakey Hill have all been occupied and reoccupied over the four decades that, off and on since I was a very small boy, I have been listening.

So, in a way, I am as bad a person to analyse the appeal of The Archers as I am to describe the particular pleasures of macaroni cheese. My partner (your mother, darling) is a different matter. She is a convert and a recent one at that. Her mum and dad have never tuned in to Ambridge, and, for our first years together, she just saw it as another of my slight eccentricities (except, this time, one fortunately shared by slightly more people). And then, gradually, over time, the piddle of the Am entered her bloodstream. What does she say about it?

It's cosy. It's comfy. It sounds a nice place to live. A slightly dramatic plotline will be thrown into high relief by periods of the most wonderful tedium, such as the current problem that kindly Hayley is having in deciding whether to cook for the aged and ailing Mrs Antrobus (how is her wrist?). You suspect that folk are gay without ever really knowing it. People in Ambridge recover from cancer. It's a community. There's no shouting. It fits into the rhythm of family life.

That is all true. The Archers packs into a whole decade as much raw emotion as EastEnders has in one episode. Unlike the TV soaps, it doesn't exhaust its audience; it doesn't beat them round the head with issues, rend them with constant miseries or subject them to constant yelling and violence. It rocks them gently.

In EastEnders, a newcomer means that the long-lost bastard son of the publican arrives suddenly, ablaze with psychopathology. In The Archers, it is a Hungarian agricultural student with an impeccable family background and such an absurd accent that he cannot possibly be played by anyone other than a Hungarian. Day after day, he milks the cows, calling to them gently in Magyar, "Zhprezzhet zhplod mookuhchny." This animal, he observes, is a 40-litre yielder. In EastEnders, the mad interloper would be referring to Sharon and preparing to be head-butted into bloody pulp by whichever Mitchell it is that isn't dead.

Much of The Archers' charm is to do, of course, with the rural idyll. There is a village fête, an annual pantomime (so drained of all dramatic potential last year – even by Archers standards – that a convenient double booking of the village hall has put paid to it for 2002, thank God), a single-wicket competition and a ploughing-match. Churchwardens "do" the church flowers; parish council members man the cake stalls; elderly yokels compete, Blandings style, for the largest marrows or freesias.

And then there's the serious didactic stuff put in there by the "agricultural story editor". We absorb stuff about farming that country folk never have to put up with from the towns. There is no "urban story editor" for Coronation Street, inserting arguments over traffic-calming measures and refuse-collection or creating convulsions over controlled parking-zones. We expect country life to be slow and human-paced. Hate the country? We love it.

To enter urban Walford is to enter hell. If it were real, then introducing a character into Albert Square would be an act of gross negligence. You come in damaged and you leave sectionable and – almost certainly – criminal. You will suffer assault, breakdown and attempted rape, discover your mother is your sister and your sister is your son and then fall victim to one of the more fashionable maladies (Aids, clap, flesh-eating disease, West Nile fever, sex addiction). The most common EastEnders phrase is a yelled: "Wos goin' on?" before fisticuffs and trauma. The Archers' most oft-repeated sentence is certainly: "Can I give you a lift into Borchester?"

The Archers doesn't need melodrama. It is for people who do not like melodrama; people for whom the world holds enough terrors as it is, what with hostage-taking, Third World starvation and the Government's refusal to bring in proportional representation. It is nearly a decade since the post-office siege, and that was (most of us agreed) over the top. When the local bad mash dropped a naughty pill, he just fell over and is still, after three months, a bit woozy. In EastEnders, he'd have set fire to his girlfriend's hair and then stood on the roof of the Queen Vic, threatening to throw himself off. All in one episode.

The Archers rewards its characters' traumas with years of quietude. Since the tractor accident that carried off their son a few years back, Tony, Pat and family have become simply a family of food processors, discussing nothing but Tony's potatoes, Helen's cheese and Tommy's sausages. Tony is having a run-in with the supermarkets about whether his spuds have lesions. In EastEnders, it's the people who have the lesions. Meanwhile, in Borsetshire, in an act of almost apocalyptic violence, anonymous hare-coursers have damaged some pheasant-feed trays. The police may have to be called. Dearest, I fall asleep just thinking about all this.

The lack of a picture helps. I don't, as it happens, have a firm image in my mind of what these long-known people look like or where they live. What would be the point? I might spend time conjuring up a Joe Grundy with a red bobble hat only to find (as a result of some casual aside) that all along he has been sporting a battered green trilby. I can do without that kind of contradiction. Much better to keep the whole place vague, populated by fat or thin, old or young shapes, than to invest in giving them unnecessarily precise features.

Also, I do not really want to know what Shula looks like because I cannot bear, these days, to be in the same room as her. My exact contemporary, she has turned out to be judgemental, whingeing and – therefore – a keen supporter of the Countryside Alliance. Her sister Elizabeth, though, I imagine to be pert, and the story of how her expensive knickers came to adorn the exterior of Locksley Hall carries a tiny (if pathetic) erotic charge. I now believe in the accumulation of small pleasures.

Here's the real secret, honey. Just when you think there's nothing but silage, evensong and yogurts, then – as in real life – someone kisses someone they really shouldn't and the whole world blows apart. Maybe it involves that Archers special character the Utter Shit, who – like Cameron Fraser, Simon Pemberton and now Debby's husband, Simon Gerrard (one of the writers must once have had a cheating lover called Simon) – lies to his woman and, in one instance, even (can this be true?) raised his hand against her. But it's best when it is adultery and it involves a mainstream person.

In that sense, Ambridge is a great place for the middle-aged. They have cars and, sometimes, lovers. For months now, the story of Brian, the rich, adulterous farmer, and Siobhan, an Irish oestrogen-explosion on legs, has punctuated the veg talk with the prospect that one day soon (soon in Archers time, that is) there will be a glorious reckoning.

Because, my daughter, when Jennifer finds out, as she will (only B and S don't seem to realise this), we will be there – your mother and I – to witness the eruption of a long-dormant and long-watched volcano. And, lovely girl, your parents will be glued to the radio and loving, far more than you have ever loved EastEnders, every last, well-earned moment of it, like people who have laboriously climbed a high, dull mountain and now – at last – see the glorious view.

Borchester chronicles

The BBC producer Godfrey Baseley started The Archers in 1950, aiming at a rural audience: the idea was that the everyday stories of country folk would be seeded with useful tips for farmers to help them in the vital job of feeding austerity Britain.

When ITV was launched, five years later, the popularity of The Archers was such that the BBC could run the death of Grace Archer (young Phil Archer's flibbertigibbet wife, killed while rescuing horses from a burning barn) as a spoiler.

Radio 4's website has an Archers family tree dating back to the 1800s and is conducting a listeners' poll for Ambridge's worst rogue. The top contenders currently are Nelson Gabriel and Brian Aldridge. (www. bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers/ catch/)

The theme tune for The Archers is a maypole dance called "Barwick Green", written by the Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood in 1924.

Garrick Hagon, who plays Simon Gerrard in the series, has also starred in the Hollywood movies Mission: Impossible, Batman and Star Wars.

The official fan club, Archers Addicts, has 26,000 members. On its website, you can buy Archers calendars, Archers soap-on-a-rope and The Archers Encyclopedia – everything you need to know about Ambridge. The prize for the site's October quiz is a tea towel signed by Eddie Grundy in indelible ink. (www.thearchers.co.uk)

Attempts to reflect the grittier realities of contemporary rural life have included an episode in which Brian was knocked down by a mad cow while campaigning as Conservative council candidate. Young Tom Archer has been up in court for his part in the destruction of GM crops. The village has even witnessed racial violence and a raid on the post office.

This summer, the fall of the Iron Curtain was finally acknowledged in Ambridge, through the advent of the Hungarian agricultural student Csaba, whose mysteriously unaccented English has been a source of puzzlement and annoyance to listeners.

A coach party from Ambridge joined the countryside march in London – the papers reported on marchers with banners bearing a message for Jennifer Aldridge: "Brian is the father of Siobhan's child".

In the 1980s, Eddie Grundy, ne'er-do-well and would-be C&W star, had his record "Poor Pig" played on John Peel's show on Radio 1.

Real-life visitors to Ambridge include Terry Wogan and Princess Margaret. The Prince of Wales, despite expressing public sympathy for Pat and Tony's organic enterprise, has declined an invitation to appear.

Compiled by Robert Hanks

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