How the Devil came down to Ambridge

'Archers' editor Vanessa Whitburn has cooked-up something especially shocking for the soap's 60th anniversary show tonight. Mike Higgins is braced for the worst

Warning – spoilers ahead! Actually, I've no more idea than any other Archers fan what may befall the folk of Borsetshire at 7pm this evening. But, in promising to "Shake Ambridge To The Core" (SATTC) with tonight's 60th anniversary, special double-length episode, the soap's editor, Vanessa Whitburn, risks spoiling a fair bit more than my potter round the kitchen, sorting out the recycling and wondering out loud why Helen doesn't take a long run off a short jetty.

For The Archers isn't merely the world's longest-running soap opera. It is, to its five million listeners, a sine qua non of British cultural life, up there with carol singing, Alan Titchmarsh, and binge-drinking in provincial towns. Is it too much to say that Whitburn is performing open-heart surgery on Britannia herself? Hmm, probably. Still, she has been more than happy to lob a few grenades on to the village green since her tenure began in the early Nineties – with Susan Carter's imprisonment for harbouring her no-good brother; Sid and Jolene's clinch in the shower; Ruth's will-she, won't-she dalliance with Sam the cowhand (she didn't in the end, thanks, weirdly, to the listeners' emails and letters insisting that a nice Geordie girl just wouldn't do that sort of thing).

The Carter storyline was a cracker, a nightmare that all we uptight citizens could live vicariously through Susan, a woman of such rectitude she makes the Queen look like a bit of a slapper. Another was the eviction of the Grundy family from Grange Farm a decade ago, a misfortune that elevated this family from comedy yokel stooges to figures of rustic tragedy that Thomas Hardy wouldn't have sniffed at.

Whitburn worked under the soap master Phil Redmond for a few years before joining The Archers, and sometimes you've been able to see Brookside peaking through the cracks in a few storylines, for better or worse. The fire was lit nicely under Will and Ed Grundy's feud when Emma finally left the former for the latter, a family conflagration that will smoulder for ten thousand weekday evenings to come. Matt and Lillian's romantic misadventures have also been a riot – a welcome dash of city flash to get up the noses of Brian, the village squire, and his squeaky-clean wife, Jennifer.

When Whitburn gets out her big BBC box file marked "Issues", though, the results have been less successful. Alistair the vet's gambling problem was a storyline signalled with all the subtlety of a drunk at the roulette wheel. As for Usha, the down-shifting solicitor, her early, racist abuse at the hands of local thugs was a necessary step for the soap and, I dimly recall, quite well done. But her marriage to Alan the vicar, to the consternation of her Hindu aunt and village prude Shula, was an undigested lump of socio-religous case study.

And so to SATTC, as the posters on Twitter and the BBC's Archers web forums refer to tonight's episode (that's an acronym of Whitburn's stated intent). In fact, Whitburn should be pleased that, among those who bother to make themselves known on these forums and blogs, there appear to be rather more looking forward to her "bombshell" than not (the harrumphers would seem to be keeping their views to the pages of the right-wing press). According to a not untypical post: "I think it just has to be a death of a major character.... It must equal the death of Grace [Archer] to SATTC. I have my suspicions, but I'm not telling. We have to think the unthinkable."

What is the unthinkable? Well, poor Helen – single, neurotic and pregnant by an unknown sperm donor – is the subject of a lot of people's death wishes. And there's some fretting about Will being in possession of a gun and a grudge. For my part, I think Whitburn has done quite a good job. It's been nearly 40 years since The Archers dropped its original function of dramatising agricultural information for the BBC's rural listeners and became "a contemporary drama in a rural setting". It's thankfully much less worthy than that – which, on the whole, Whitburn and her team recognise – it's good soap. And, as much as it might irk many of its listeners, big soaps need big occasions like tonight's.

The Archers: what happens next?

Vanessa Whitburn has promised that tonight's episode will affect two storylines, "one running and one new surprise". What might they be? Here, we offer a couple of ideas for each. Altogether now: da da-da da-da da-da, da da-da da-da daaaa....

Tonight, a special 30-minute celebration episode of The Archers will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 7pm

Soap scenarios...

Good riddance, Helen

Poor Helen. Admittedly she was a touch Single White Female with her lodger Annette in the summer, and her father Tony could hand her a winning Lotto ticket only to get a mouthful in response. But she has suffered eating disorders, rotten luck in love, and the enmity of Brian Aldridge. What's the reaction of most Archers listeners? Off the moaning git! The writers seem to concur: her sperm-donor pregnancy has loomed so large that even the producers of Casualty might blush. Cue a row with her father causing her to go into early, and fatal, labour; the child survives, and her will hands guardianship of the mite not to her parents or brother Tom, but – shock! – to gay BF Ian.

Likelihood: 4/5

Will Grundy goes postal with his 12-bore

The internecine Grundy feud is a good banker for The Archers, and boiled over again in the run-up to Christmas when Will and Ed squared up to one another at the turkey plucking. And while Ed seems to have got his life back on track after his crack-fuelled low, his brother, Will, is a simmering pot of paranoia and resentment due to the fact that his brother is raising his son. What will be the trigger: catching Ed getting a New Year's Eve kiss from his girlfriend Nic? Finding out his ne'er-do-well father, Eddie, really did nick those Christmas trees off the land he oversees? All of the above and a skinful of Shires down The Bull?

Likelihood 3/5

Grey Gables apocalypse!

Events are going to "shake Ambridge to the core", we've been told. Is that clue to be taken literally? Hold on to your bio-digesters... the earthquake strikes at lunchtime on Sunday. Much of the village survives unscathed but Grey Gables does not; one wing, including the dining rooms, collapsing on guests. Hearteningly, the many dead include Felpersham United's first XI who were so beastly to chef Ian recently. Tragically, they also include village doyenne Peggy, village total pain in the arse Shula and her husband Alistair.

Likelihood 2/5

Mullah Archer

The wild card. After a wild New Year's Eve partying, Kenton is nowhere to be found on Saturday or Sunday. A video appears on The Bull's website, in which Kenton renounces his playboy lifestyle, announces his conversion to Islam and declares his intention to wage "jihad" on the fleshpots of Felpersham. A massive manhunt culminates in a deadly stand-off at Kenton's own bar, Jaxx.

Likelihood 0/5 (alas)

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