Creative producer for more than 7,000 episodes of the long-running radio drama 'The Archers'
Thursday 09 October 2003
Anthony Joseph Shryane, radio and television director and sound engineer: born Birmingham 20 January 1919; MBE 1961; twice married (three sons, and one daughter deceased); died St Austell, Cornwall 22 September 2003.
Tony Shryane was the quiet genius behind the crucial early years of what is now (and will almost certainly for ever be) the longest-running radio drama serial in the history of sound broadcasting: the BBC's The Archers, "an everyday story of country folk" in the fantasy village of Ambridge, in the fictional county of Borsetshire.
Shryane did not invent "the Archers". The basic concept was largely the inspiration of the BBC agricultural and gardening producer Godfrey Baseley, who responded to a half-joking suggestion by a Lincolnshire farmer, Henry Burtt, for a "farming Dick Barton" (the daily thriller serial). What was needed was something to sugar the pill of Ministry of Agriculture advice on good farming practice and "the importance of the February Price Review".
Baseley rounded up the chief Dick Barton scriptwriters, Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb, together with a young sound engineer who had usefully worked on both Dick Barton and the new daily drama success Mrs Dale's Diary. This was Tony Shryane.
Mason and Webb were both pastmasters in the art of keeping a serial bubbling along with mini-climaxes, amusing dialogue and gripping storylines, and in 1950 they and Baseley concocted enough plot for five trial episodes, which were broadcast from the old Broad Street studios in Birmingham over the Midlands region Home Service. They scored a huge hit with listeners and, at lunchtime on New Year's Day 1951, now broadcasting on the national Light Programme, The Archers began its record-breaking run, almost instantly attaining an audience of two million.
This doubled to four million by Easter, when it was shifted to peak listening-time of 6.45 in the evening, thereby killing off the programme which had originally sparked it off, Dick Barton - Special Agent. At its peak, in the mid-Fifties, The Archers was being listened to each weekday evening by over 20 million people, roughly half the population.
Its popularity, however, was by no means due to the heavy top-dressing of Min of Ag propaganda which, when incorporated into the script, was usually handled by the farmer Dan Archer (Harry Oakes) at the breakfast table, opening his mail and commenting testily to his wife Doris (Gwen Berryman): "My word, Doris, listen to what the blessed ministry wants us to do now . . ."
What kept the fast-growing army of listeners silent in their seats were storylines stuffed with murder, arson, sabotage, poaching, Sapphic hints (for a while young Christine Archer had a very odd relationship with the exotic Lady Hylebarrow), kidnapping, robbery, a plane crash (decades before the Emmerdale blood-bath), and sex on the front-room sofa - and all within the first two or three years of the programme.
To those country folk who protested that The Archers wasn't much like their own "everyday story", Shryane pointed out that a perfectly reasonable division of subject-matter had been worked out: 20 per cent agricultural material, 10 per cent horticultural, 10 per cent country life and natural history, with the remaining 60 per cent story. What could be fairer? It was, after all, a drama.
By now Baseley was editor of the programme - i.e. overall boss, in charge of forward planning, product promotion, high-concepting - while Shryane had fast-tracked from lowly sound engineer to junior producer to, very swiftly, full-time producer which, in BBC-speak, meant director as well. And if Baseley was the impresario of Ambridge, whose dynamism kept the Midlands-based show storming along in the face of just about every bureaucratic clod of earth Portland Place could hurl at it, Shryane was the hands-on hero behind the studio sound-desk, actually keeping the show on the road.
An enthusiast for naturalism, he pushed the actors to "talk" their lines not "speak" them, pushed the writers to keep on injecting reality into their fantasy. He slogged round agricultural shows seeking out offbeat story material, and paid close attention to the actual sound of the serial: church bells, birdsong, farmyard noises-off (an early publicity photograph shows him jabbing a BBC microphone at a prize porker).
Both Baseley and Shryane constantly came up with fresh story ideas for the writers, but it does seem to have been Shryane who chose the actual victim of what was to become the most notorious incident in The Archers' history, the death of Grace Archer while trying to save her horse Midnight in a burning stable. This was the brilliant spoiler that kept so many potential television viewers, on the very night in 1955 that ITV was launched, listening, spellbound, to a mere radio programme.
To be sure, years later (in 1989), in his eighties, Baseley launched his own spoiler - just before the serial's 10,000th episode - by claiming he had dreamed up Grace's death to get rid of the actress who played her, Ysanne Churchman, because she was an Equity member and he wanted to keep the actors' union out of the programme. But as he was one to let off irate broadsides at his old programme, which he believed was "going to the dogs" under a bunch of "interfering feminists", this revelation was ignored.
Tony Shryane was born in Harborne, Birmingham, in 1919, and educated as normal up to secondary stage, even passing his grammar-school entrance exams. But then he opted out of the system, preferring to take a job in the effects department of the BBC Birmingham studios.
Only 20 when the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Warwickshires, transferring later to the Reconnaissance Corps, where, in 1944, he sustained shrapnel wounds after the Normandy landings. While convalescing in England he produced revues for the troops before being demobbed in 1945, when he returned to the BBC.
In all Shryane spent nearly 30 years with The Archers (and more than 7,000 episodes). At the same time he devised (usually with Edward J. Mason) other hugely entertaining shows, all of which found favour with the listeners, such as Guilty Party, in which a panel of celebrities tried to work out "whodunit" after listening to a studio playlet featuring murder or mayhem, or both, and My Word!, chiefly memorable for the often hilarious verbal contributions of Frank Muir and Denis Norden, with the film critic Dilys Powell and the journalist Nancy Spain. A by-blow was My Music, again starring Muir and Norden, as well as Ian Wallace and the irascible bass David Franklin (later John Amis).
Shryane was a highly creative radio director/producer who understood his medium thoroughly (in the "death of Grace Archer" sequence he brought off a final brilliant coup de radio by not using the programme's signature tune "Barwick Green" at the climax, leaving listeners in horrified silence - although, for the archive "remake" over 30 years later, the thunderously apocalyptic finale was restored). He imbued those under him with his understanding, as well as a deep affection for the medium itself.
In 1961 he was appointed MBE "for services to broadcasting".
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