Will The Archers ever be the same?

This is news - big news, if you're a reader of the
Sunday Telegraph, which placed this story right beneath its masthead: that Sid and Jolene, the adulterous couple in
The Archers (he's the adulterer, she's the trollop), are going to have nookie in the shower. And there will be a microphone right there, broadcasting it to the nation. This will happen this evening, some time between 7.02 and 7.15pm.

This is news - big news, if you're a reader of the Sunday Telegraph, which placed this story right beneath its masthead: that Sid and Jolene, the adulterous couple in The Archers (he's the adulterer, she's the trollop), are going to have nookie in the shower. And there will be a microphone right there, broadcasting it to the nation. This will happen this evening, some time between 7.02 and 7.15pm.

If The Archers leaves you cold, this could be less than overwhelming, and I would understand. But if you listen to the programme, then... then what? Are you going to be intrigued or distressed? There is an idealised, standard Archers listener whose reaction is usually spoken for at times like this by the kind of person we can file under the heading "the usual suspects". Viz: an MP called Julian Brazier calls the forthcoming mogambo session "clambering on the bandwagon of the cheapest kind of populism", although there must be more comfortable places to do it than on a bandwagon. Valerie Riches, who is the head of an organisation called Family and Youth Concern, says: "it sounds like they're trying to make it a bit hotter to push up the ratings. But," she adds ominously, "it could well turn out to be counter-productive."

I never thought I would agree with someone holding any position whatsoever with Family and Youth Concern, but I think Ms Riches has a point. For those who do not know him, Sid Perks is one of the most unpleasant characters in the programme, not because he is actually evil, although his acute homophobia doesn't help, but because he is narcissistic and boring beyond belief, like most men with nothing in their brains beyond a desire to go to the gym and build up their abs. (Unlike the immortal Homer Simpson, who once looked at a building and said: "'gym'? What's a 'gym'?" - only he pronounced it "gime", with a hard g, and to rhyme with "time".) As entertainment, listening to the love talk of Sid Perks verges on the seriously depraved.

Let us be clear on one matter: the people who write the scripts for The Archers are not fools. They may be sadistic torturers, inflicting upon their audience a pain spared every other fan of every other soap opera, but they are not fools. They know what they are doing - although I must admit that such a statement is debatable when, on Sundays, we are regularly treated to the sound of half the cast singing a couple of verses of some hymn or other, as if the Religious Broadcasting Unit had abrogated their responsibilities, shoved off down the pub, and let the Archers and their ghastly friends and relations pick up the slack. The horrible outbreak of hymn-singing that afflicts the programme is a reminder that Sid Perks doing the deed of darkness is by no means the only unpleasant noise the show's devotees have been forced to undergo.

Lambing has been pretty distressing this year, all sorts of icky mental images being conjured up, and we pray very hard indeed that they do not mix up the Pulling Lamb From Sheep's Uterus sound effect tape with the Sid And Jolene Going At It Like Knives tape come the big moment.

But the point of the programme is surely that its writers must be on to something, when the cast of the longest-running soap opera on earth contains not a single character, since the disappearance of Nelson Gabriel (in truth, the sad death of the actor who played him), whom you would not dearly want to kick in the bum. We listen - aghast, groaning abjectly, and with our hands covering our ears half the time - but we are still there every evening or lunchtime.

There is a society called the Archers Anarchists - actually a front for a guerrilla Tory resistance group, but I salute them nevertheless - which acknowledges the awfulness of the characters, the dismally uninteresting nature of their unfolding destinies, but tacitly admits the audience's thraldom to the show in spite of everything.

The Julian Braziers of this world do not suspect that there is, or can be, a very big difference between the people who listen to The Archers and the people who are in it. This, of course, is one short step away from writing poison-pen letters to soap characters who perform hateful acts.

Such doom merchants, who fear this latest dramatic development, will unleash acts of bestial and adulterous depravity countrywide, forget that The Archers' storylines, 20 or 30 years ago, used to be considerably fruitier, darker and more violent than they are now (ask your local Archers oral historian for chapter and verse; he or she will happily oblige).

But it would seem that every time something vaguely interesting happens in The Archers - which, let's face it, isn't exactly every day - someone imagines the effect it would have on, ooh, let's say, the bigoted and stupid matriarch, Peggy Woolley, and gets all in a lather. If I may use such a turn of phrase in the circumstances.

It's this kind of thing that makes people easily given to paranoia wonder whether The Archers has that sinister and hidden purpose, an "agenda". Actually, it does have an agenda, and the first item on that agenda is "keep our listeners, and get some more while we're at it". This is achieved simply by the sheer specific gravity of the programme, the way it sucks the listeners into its maw like a black hole. I used to resist it, and laughed to scorn those who couldn't; now look at me, switching off my laptop right this minute so I can catch the lunchtime edition.

And now I'm back. Dear God, it's pitiful, or it would be, had I not just now and finally realised the mission of the Archers' writers: what they are in the process of doing is a catalogue raisonné of Middle England cretinism, an ongoing and endless thesaurus of banality and cliché rivalled only in scope and seriousness of purpose by Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas.

Think about it for a minute. It is not just that no one in the programme is allowed to have an original idea. It is that everyone represents a stupid one. Brian Aldridge exists to make GM foods and agri-business look loathsome in the eyes of the world. Even I've written him a poison-pen letter. His wife is a non-stop argument against the pitfalls of marriage. His daughter has undermined the New Age movement, perhaps fatally. The only decent landlord ever to exist in The Archers died of a heart attack after 10 minutes, his son taking over and causing nine million listeners to flirt with communism. Sue Carter is a dreadful warning against petty social snobbery, and the Archer family themselves constitute a highly articulate and sophisticated message against something, I am not yet quite sure what, but just you see.

And Sid Perks and Jolene? Isn't it obvious? Every married man and woman who has ever entertained an adulterous thought, even for a microsecond, will hear tonight's scene, shudder violently, and then resolve to stay faithfully married for the rest of their lives.

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