The Archers move to Peyton Place

Souls are laid bare in a new 'real-life soap' about a Hampshire village. Nicki Household meets the players
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The Independent Online
When one of my neighbours stood out in the street at 3am the other night and repeatedly screamed as if being torn limb from limb by wild animals, no one in the surrounding houses took a blind bit of notice. It was a typically English non-reaction, and also explains why most British soaps just don't ring true. Far from letting it all hang out in pubs and launderettes, we still find public displays of emotion embarrassing.

So it's all the more incredible that dozens of inhabitants of the Hampshire village of Bentley have been sharing their lives with a television camera for three years and, for the most part, show no sign of wanting to stop.

The Village, a real-life soap, complete with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode, is a spin-off from the long-running documentary series on Radio 4. So far, it has been seen only in the Meridian area, where it attracted up to 46 per cent of the audience. But now that BBC2 has bought the first 24 programmes, the residents of Bentley are about to receive nationwide exposure three times a week. And what will the nation see?

Bentley isn't exactly a cauldron of seething passions, but you can follow the lovely Simmi's adventures with a dating agency and 14-year-old Catherine's worries about her belly button, debate the pros and cons of Les's vasectomy, watch the village bobby's wife giving birth, and commiserate with Alison over her broken engagement. Between these high spots, there's the harvest and the hop-picking, the arrival of a new vicar, the village panto and so on.

To an outsider, it's all fairly gentle, harmless stuff. But opinions in the village, as I discovered when I went there, are sharply divided. Chris Holmes, 31, who runs Glade Farm with his father, Tony, the series' "Phil Archer" character, has had enough of the constant intrusion, not to mention the various bendings of the truth.

"It's become a pain in the butt. It was good fun on radio because people had to imagine what we looked like. But the TV version is far more manipulative and I'm wary of being made to look a fool. My father doesn't mind re-enacting things three or four times until they're happy, but I won't do it." While Chris enjoyed having his wedding filmed last year, he's not letting a camera anywhere near when his wife, Sarah, has her first baby.

The problem, of course, is that English village life is only spasmodically dramatic and exciting (and the camera crew can't spend much time there as this is a low-budget production) so the stories have to be helped along with mood music, a tension-raising commentary and some creative cutting and editing.

The protagonists are very much at the mercy of Nigel Farrell, the series' narrator and co-producer, who, when something nasty has happened, can be heard coaxing people to describe just how miserable they feel.

As no money is involved, it's a puzzle why so many are keen to co-operate ("You'll only hear bad things from people who haven't been asked to be in it," I was told more than once). Meridian donates a small sum, about pounds 500 per series, to the parish council, but no individuals have been paid as it was thought that would cause problems and jealousies. Nigel Farrell puts their willingness down to human vanity. "Most people just can't resist the opportunity to go on television. They often say 'no' when you first ask them, but they end up agreeing because underneath they really want to do it. People love to talk about themselves and the things that matter to them."

Tony Holmes relishes his pivotal role in the series and is happy to play things up for the viewers. Early on, there is a row between him and his brother-in-law Jumbo about the Bentley by-pass. Tony approves of the new road, Jumbo is dead against it - and for several months they're not on speaking terms. Tony Holmes readily admits that they stirred the quarrel up a bit for the camera.

Bentley itself, with 1,300 inhabitants, one pub, one shop, a hairdresser and a village hall, is not especially picturesque, even allowing for the fact that I visited on a dismal December day. But since the disputed by- pass was built, it has become quiet and rural. This is a boon to most villagers, but means that Bentley Stores and the Star pub have lost passing trade and are in difficulties.

The Star's landlords, Maureen and Brian May, are understandably miffed that the series seems to feature every pub in the area except theirs. "They film in pubs that are miles outside the village and just pretend they're in Bentley," complains Maureen, who also feels that the series ignores important local events such as the village fete and the school nativity play. "Most people here don't think it's about the true villagers at all."

But then most people in the village have their own ideas of what the series should be showing. Alan Wheatley, who runs the village stores, thinks it's a crime that no mention has been made of Montgomery and Baden- Powell, Bentley's most distinguished former residents. But Bentley was chosen precisely for the reason that it was an ordinary village that wasn't particularly famous for anything.

Despite its title, The Village is more about a colourful set of characters than the community as a whole. The forthright farmer Colin Meatyard, much beloved of viewers on account of his foul language, which has to be bleeped out, is a gift to the series. Since his wife left him about two series ago, Colin has found a new partner through the lonely hearts column of the Farmer's Weekly. Rather disappointingly, he didn't swear once as we sipped tea in his kitchen - "I don't like to offend ladies," he explained, "but if they think my language is bad on television, they should hear me around the house." He treats the series as a big joke. "Twenty years ago I would have been like a dog with two tails to be on television, but now I take no notice of it."

Sue Woodcock, who took over as village bobby 20 months ago, was initially reluctant to take part. "I didn't like the way they made a fool of my predecessor, Pinky Salmon, and took the mickey out of him when he was supposed to be 'waiting for burglars' in the village shop. They showed his helmet bobbing up and down and played silly music over it." But PC Woodcock's superintendent thought it would be good for her, too, to be seen as a part of the local community. The series shows her investigating the theft of gooseberries from someone's garden, rather than dealing with domestic violence or arresting poachers in the middle of the night.

"You only see the tip of the iceberg in the programmes, but then the better stories are not for daytime TV." Tough and unstarstruck, she doesn't particularly like strangers asking her if she's "the policewoman on telly", when she is peacefully tending her front garden. "Your anonymity is worth nothing to you until you lose it," she says wryly.

Simmi, on the other hand, enjoys all the exposure, though she protects herself from nutty admirers by not revealing her surname. A glamorous beauty therapist, she's let down by an utter cad in the first series, but eventually finds true love in the form of Les Player, with whom she now runs a software business. Although she believes in being totally open, even she was amazed when Les agreed to share his vasectomy with the viewers last February. "Nigel thought it would interest a lot of people," says Les, "so I let them go ahead and film it - well, everything except the operation itself."

Surprisingly few of the characters seem to think they're being exploited: perhaps television has finally become such an integral part of everyday life that the camera has lost its power to disconcert. Most of the local criticism stems from the way the series messes about with chronology and fakes things; for example, Les Player was filmed asking his GP what a vasectomy entailed just after he had had it (and was in no little pain). "They don't film things that never happened," Mr Player reassures me. "They just ask you to re-enact them afterwards to make them understandable."

Both he and Simmi are adamant that they would never do anything just because Nigel Farrell wanted them to. "He'd love us to get married, but we shall do that in our own time."

The most swingeing indictment comes from Annette Booth, who regularly produces the Christmas panto, and is hopping mad about the way she was portrayed. "They came to one rehearsal, which they made appear to be six, cut out all the appreciative comments I made about the cast, and for the sake of some preconceived idea, made me out to be a terrifying harridan who just shouted at people. It was the 14th pantomime I have produced, and if I was that much of an ogre, I don't think people would keep coming back. It was very hurtful."

She's now resigned to the whole nation believing she's the wicked witch of Bentley (though she lives in Lower Froyle), but thinks the programmes should have more integrity. "They should make up their minds whether The Village is documentary or fiction. At the moment it's neither."

'The Village' begins at 5.30pm on 8 January on BBC2; it will be shown on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays for eight weeks.