The Archers: Art meets reality in Ambridge

On New Year's Eve, radio's favourite soap marks its golden jubilee. Some say it portrays a mendaciously cosy view of rural life, but to many fans it is all too believable.
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This may be meant to be New Britain, but it's remarkable how two different soap operas have celebrated milestone anniversaries within a few weeks of each other: ruby for Coronation Street, but golden for The Archers.

This may be meant to be New Britain, but it's remarkable how two different soap operas have celebrated milestone anniversaries within a few weeks of each other: ruby for Coronation Street, but golden for The Archers.

Keeping a soap opera running is all the more daunting for the fact that it is meant to keep running: the form involves a tacit pact with its audience, that we are here for the long haul. Its very open-endedness is crucial. We are encouraged to think of it as life, rather than art, and indeed to think of it as the latter is to be something of a spoilsport.

The soap operas that fail are regarded with a particular scorn. Those that persist, though, can be like a pair of socks darned so often that none of the original material remains: Coronation Street no longer even pretends to the gritty urban realism which was, when it started, its unique selling point. But The Archers, you feel, still must have something about it of the original rural saga; and, more surprisingly, it seems to be in reasonably healthy shape. It is still, after Today, Radio 4's most popular programme.

The music helps: Billy Connolly once suggested that the national anthem should be replaced by Barwick Green, and that was about 20 years ago. Its dum-dee-dum has irresistibly insinuated itself into the national psyche. But other soaps have distinctive signature tunes. There is also the extraordinary longevity of some of the cast, whether as actors or as characters; some have been there for the whole run.

It is this timescale that makes the non-listener imagine the programme to be nothing so much as the aural equivalent of a gift-shop tea-towel: a mendaciously cosy and - with a big and a little "c" - conservative take on a way of life that has certainly vanished, even if it can be said ever to have existed. The minor politician (almost invariably Tory) who can be relied on to make a pronouncement regarding a scandalous plot development is also unlikely to know the programme well; he or she is an unwitting cog in a publicity machine smoothed by years of cunning usage, whose operators know how to make a certain kind of person jump up noisily in consternation, whether at the sudden appearance of sex (Elizabeth Archer's abortion, "sex in the shower" between Sid Perks the pub landlord and his paramour Jolene) or politics (a young Archer's prosecution for damaging a field of rape).

So the constant struggle is whether to make Borsetshire, its setting, as imaginary as Never Never Land, or a reasonable construct of existing rural realities; and indeed the public debates about the programme tend to revolve around the issue of whether it has forsaken "reality". That people still imagine it as an unofficial propaganda arm of the Ministry of Agriculture says something about how it is perceived. (At a meeting between the ministry, the BBC, and farmers in 1948, a Lincolnshire farmer called Henry Burtt said: "What we need is a farming Dick Barton." That was one of the more unlikely sentences to have been uttered at a planning meeting - Dick Barton was a special agent. Who could have imagined then that Dick Barton would be forgotten, while these bucolic inventions would be soldiering on 50 years later?)

Urban listeners, who already suspect they constitute the majority of the audience, suffer the constant, if minor, anxiety about whether the programme is accurate or not. The more impressionable listeners believe it to be not so much accurate as real. This routine confusion is a useful generator of publicity. For what does it mean when the Home Secretary is appealed to in order to secure the release from prison of a fictional character, as Michael Howard was when Susan Carter was jailed for sheltering her criminal brother from the police? The sophisticated response is to throw one's hands up in despair at the fatuity of one's fellow-citizens. The even more sophisticated response is to ask whether the characters in The Archers are, strictly speaking, fictional at all.

This is not as clever-clever as it may at first seem. For art and reality are surely beginning to overlap when, as the BBC is proud to point out, one actor was recently cast at the age of two months and another while still in the womb. True, they are playing babies, but they may never leave the show. Norman Painting has played Phil Archer, the patriarch of the family whose life in and around the village of Ambridge is the focus for the show, since the beginning. He was also a writer on the programme for nearly a decade, scripting nearly 1,200 episodes; in what sense, you might wonder, is he acting? Despite recently revealing that he is suffering from cancer of the bladder, Painting has been at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios for almost all the recent episodes; Phil Archer is at the centre of the soap's current major storyline about who will inherit Brookfield farm, which will reach a dramatic climax in the double-length New Year's Eve episode.

The longer-serving actors seem wearily anxious to point out that they are acting. It's interesting that Radio 4's own publicity brochure celebrating the programme's 50th anniversary, which contains interviews with the cast, should have the following, curiously downbeat exchange between itself and Painting: "Fifty years down the line, he says he has no regrets. 'There's no point in regretting anything, because it's happened,' he says philosophically." The tone seems to be more about life and career decisions than about script meetings.

In this, though, he inadvertently puts his finger on the element that most significantly attests to the reason for the programme's success, and that is the way its audience accepts the things that have happened. A soap opera is in terminal trouble if we do not assent to the historical record. The soap that resurrects a dead character and explains the reappearance by saying that the last few dozen episodes were all a dream is on the way out. The most enduring item of common knowledge about The Archers, its most problematic plot crux, as it were, is the way Grace's death in a fire was timed deliberately to interfere with ITV's inaugural broadcast. Yet there is a sense in which one believes that it was a remarkable coincidence that Grace should have died on the very night that ITV started. The question being answered then, in 1955, was "how far will the BBC go in order to keep this show on the air?" The implicit answer is: quite far indeed. All characters are potentially expendable, vulnerable to external contingencies in a way that characters in, say, a novel are not. And this is another one of the ways it confuses us into thinking it's somehow real.

More rests on the writers' and producers' shoulders than the mere duty to tell an entertaining story. (One should also salute the way the show audaciously, and perhaps uniquely, flirts with outright tedium. Listeners can be mesmerised by the utter inconsequentiality of a whole month's episodes, and even if this is simply the run-up to something shocking, the longueurs are no less longue for all that. This is an acknowledged element of the show's charm.) For many of its listeners, it is all, or most, of what they know of country life, and while the educational purpose may have been officially abandoned in the 1970s, the show has to account for topicality. Of course, Ambridge is an idyll, albeit one where unpleasant things can and do happen; but the long-running soap opera implies a harmonious relationship between its characters, and there is something idyllic about that. True verisimilitude could ordain the place as dispersed as a Highland village after the clearances; or at the very least, with more adultery, more drugs, more suicide.

Only the densest and most urbanised weekend visitor to the countryside could miss the sense of embittered catastrophe that hangs over much of the land. To its credit, the show does address the issues of struggling farmers, the teenagers crazed with boredom, the landowners impatient to "develop" property. Yet it has to be careful about doing so, going against the grain not so much of its own perceived conservatism, as against that of some of its listeners. Those who would prefer less lurid stories point darkly at Vanessa Whitburn, the show's editor, and her past working for Brookside. They would do well to remember that the first time a plane fell out of the sky in a British soap opera was not on that show, or (as it later happened) in Emmerdale, but in The Archers, in 1952.