The Archers, radio's longest running soap opera, is to have a new theme tune composed by the avant-garde rock musician Brian Eno.
The decision, authorised by Helen Boaden, the controller of BBC Radio 4, will shock devotees of the hugely popular programme, but it will delight contemporary composers who feel cutting-edge, modernist music is all too rarely heard on popular programmes.
Eno, once a member of the influential rock group Roxy Music, is a lifelong Archers fan, and is known to have discussed events in Ambridge with Roxy Music's singer, Bryan Ferry, backstage during tours in the Seventies. Eno, who has also worked with David Bowie, was asked by Vanessa Whitburn, editor of The Archers, to compose a new theme, which would have the feel of "club music".
He agreed immediately, and spent a day in the studio, in effect remixing the much-loved signature tune, "Barwick Green", written in 1924 by the composer Arthur Wood.
The result, which will be heard by listeners for the first time next week, clearly uses the original theme as its point of reference, as a token of Eno's affection for the programme. But a radical addition is his trademark synthesiser to a pulsating beat of electronic drums. And while instantly recognisable, the tune is played at a discernibly faster tempo than that to which listeners are accustomed. Eno told The Independent last night: "The current theme tune is reactionary and exclusionary. It fails totally to address the concerns of young people."
His new music has already been tested privately on leading members of the Archers cast. Although initially sceptical, Trevor Harrison, who plays Eddie Grundy, said his character would prefer a country and western version, but the actor himself felt it would attract more listeners. "I can see it in the charts," he said. "I can see people dancing to it. Having a great fan of the programme writing the tune means it comes from the heart."
Hedli Niklaus, who runs Archers Addicts, the official Archers fan club, said: "There will undoubtedly be members of the fan club who will find this difficult. There are some who don't like change and they will have problems with this. Personally, I think it is rather cool."
This was not the view of one celebrity fan of The Archers, the playwright Mark Ravenhill. He said: "I don't think this new music with synthesisers and electronic drums is true to the spirit of the countryside. This is an act of vandalism."
His reaction was mild compared to the reaction of some diehard Archers fanatics. Peter Keir, a farmer from Wrantage, near Taunton, Somerset, said: "My wife and I have been listening to The Archers for nearly 40 years.
"How much more nonsense do we have to put up with? We have sex in the shower, gay cavortings, heroin dealers and people being held hostage at gunpoint. What on earth has this to do with farming in the countryside?
"At least the theme tune was something familiar and reassuring. And now some rock musician, of whom I'm glad to say I've never heard, comes along and messes that up. No wonder the BBC is in trouble."
Victoria Smith-Orr, from Wandsworth, south-west London, said: "For people like me, who live in the metropolis, The Archers represents escapism. If they really wanted a new-age theme, they could have had birdsong or the rustle of leaves in the trees. I don't see the point of wasting our licence fee on a gimmick like this."
The new signature tune is the latest attempt by the production team to give The Archers a more 21st-century feel. The series, which has addressed drug addiction and homelessness, recently made waves with its first gay kiss.
Ironically, music has always played a substantial part in Archers plots. Eddie Grundy and Jolene Rogers ("the Lily of Layton Cross") are erstwhile country and western performers, while Jolene's daughter Fallon won a Pop Idol-style talent contest organised by Radio Borsetshire. Her success resulted in a split with the rock band Dross, whose other members include Edward Grundy, Eddie's son.
However, the programme's patriarch, Phil Archer, who plays the organ at the Ambridge parish church on Sundays, is less likely to be heard pounding out the new theme tune on the piano at a family singsong. Selections from South Pacific and a bit of Schumann are more his style.
Ms Whitburn described the updating of the theme music as "a 'new-wave' arrangement of a favourite signature tune".
She wanted, she said, "an urban-rural blend, a rave feel if you like. It's important that town meets countryside."
She added: "I think The Archers needs to move into the 21st century like any other popular programme. We felt that the signature tune needed spicing up, and to be given a punchier and pacier feel."
Ms Boaden said Eno had changed the shape and sound of pop music and as an intelligent, sophisticated person was the archetypal Radio 4 listener.
"I think a few eyebrows will be raised at first," she said, "but over time people will come to love it as they loved the original tune."
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