Vision of Britain: Radio presents authorised version of rural reality: In search of John Major's land of unchanging values, Alex Renton examines The Archers' influence on our conception of country life

ONE 'Archerological' myth can be dispensed with immediately. Ambridge was never a place of rural calm and predictability, marked only by the measured changes of the succeeding seasons. In 1951, the first year The Archers was broadcast nationally, there was a murder at the Bull, sabotage and violence at the ironstone works, six different emotional entanglements - one adulterous, another with strong homosexual undertones - and the revelation that an Ambridge resident was an undercover member of the secret service.

This last may have been a hangover from the series that The Archers replaced, Dick Barton - Special Agent. Nevertheless, 'an everyday story of country folk' it never was: indeed, had it been, it would not now be the world's longest-lasting broadcasting serial.

The Archers was an immediate success. By the end of its first week on the Home Service it had 2 million listeners, 4 million at the end of the month and 20 million by 1955. Today, it has 7.5 million regular listeners.

The other millions who do not listen contain a considerable number who wonder why anyone does. The question has been considered since the beginning. In 1953, considering The Archers phenomenon, the Daily Sketch reported that 'the programme provides a welcome form of 'escapism' for millions of city workers and carries informal information for country workers'.

Did the country worker not need escapism? In the New Statesman, a writer explained: 'It is not quite the real thing, but it is near enough it to be heard with pleasure by a number of country people of my acquaintance who would not expend useful time on a programme either dull or unreal.'

The reality of The Archers has troubled audiences ever since. Then, as now, The Archers was nothing short of absolutely real to some. When Dan Archer, Phil's father, talked of advertising for a farm worker, the BBC received 50 applications from unemployed men.

Not long ago someone wrote to the wealthy Ambridge farmer Brian Aldridge, care of the programme, to tell him that his wife, Jennifer, was 'secretly visiting London to read letters on BBC television's Points of View'. The writer went on: 'You must stop this. She is taking work away from a qualified person and cannot possibly need the money.'

The absolute reality of The Archers aside, it has always carried a troublesome weight of importance in the heart of the nation. It became more than a mirror of British rural life: it is British rural life. And though this effect diminished after the Sixties, The Archers has always been immensely potent. As the veteran radio critic and Archerophile Gillian Reynolds has written: 'It is a well-established fact that anything that happens in the real world only becomes really real when it happens in Ambridge.'

In the Fifties, the BBC exploited its surprise success with unseemly gusto. The archives hold many photographs of the Archers cast on the farm - often in pristine tweeds looking rather lost in the pig slurry - and public appearances were encouraged. There is a troubling photograph of Dan and Doris Archer holding up a copy of the Borchester Echo, whose headline celebrates the 1,000th edition of The Archers - that is, two fictional characters reading a story in a fictional newspaper about the fiction that they are taking part in. Similarly, post-modernist Archers fans also worry about the fact that the only ordinary human activity the Archers never indulge in is listening to The Archers.

In 1953, two years before the advent of commercial television - an event marked by the first killing-off of a major character, Phil Archer's wife, Grace - The Archers had no significant competition at all. Over a quarter of the population was listening regularly: it was, said the Daily Sketch, 'even more popular than the news'.

A slip could cause appalling repercussions. In 1953, the producers were taken to task by everyone from the National Union of Agricultural Workers (the BBC was 'deliberately glossing over the squalor and penury in which (Dan Archer's happy farmhand Simon Cooper) must be living') to the Rev F M Tapply of All Saints, Highgate: 'The Archers are guilty of profanity. 'Gosh' and 'Golly' are merely other forms of 'God'.'

Doctors were upset when Jack Archer, then landlord of the Bull, was told by his GP that he was heading for a 'nervous breakdown'. 'I had four people in my surgery one evening complaining that they were in for a nervous breakdown. The next night I had two and my partner had three,' wrote A Doctor. The Sunday Graphic reported the 'fury of 100,000 pigeon fanciers' at Tom Forrest's remark that pigeons carry fowl pest.

More serious was the Conservative fete debate. This ended with questions in the House, after Edwin Gooch, Labour MP for North Norfolk, objected to 'political meddling' on the part of the BBC, who gave permission for the actors playing Doris and Dan Archer to open a Tory garden fete in his constituency. The controversy rumbled for months: in the end, the BBC forbade the actors from appearing at political events in character.

For a fan, the scripts of the summer of 1953 are neither dull nor unreal. Most of the differences are superficial. There is none of the incessant coffee- drinking: tea is drunk incessantly instead.

Stories are told a little more slowly - there are rarely more than four scenes an episode, whereas today six or seven are common in each 15-minute slot. The original formula set down by the programme's inventor, Godfrey Baseley, of 10 per cent education, 30 per cent information and 60 per cent entertainment, seems to be adhered to with some rigour.

So, in episode 665, transmitted on 8 August, we hear Mrs Perkins and Jack Archer helping to pull thistles from Walter Gabriel's corn field - Walter was too late with the spraying - and Mrs P is teased about the possibility of her marrying Walter - a plot idea that ran without resolution for nearly 40 years. And, for an issue, we hear discussion of a proposal to build 400 council houses between Ambridge and Hollerton.

Meanwhile, Grace Fairbrother has told Phil Archer, her intended, that she is going away to Ireland for a year to learn about horsebreeding. Phil objects. Grace explodes: 'Grow up little boy] Hadn't you heard? When women get married these days they no longer act as timid and colourless servants of their husbands. They take part in life]' 'What]' says Phil.

The principal change, of course, is that apart from the cockneys Mrs Perkins and Peggy Archer, her daughter, all the characters then were thoroughly rustic. And a class system is still up and running. Dan Archer is still a tenant farmer and Phil, his son, calls the landlord, Admiral Bellamy, 'Sir'. As he does his own boss, his fiancee's father, Mr Fairbrother.

The bourgeoisification of the Archers is one of the issues that has worried fans most over the years. When, in 1989, Prue Forrest broke decades of on-air silence in one of the producers' less clever stunts, a listener complained: 'Thirty years ago, when Tom Forrest was courting and marrying her, she sounded more like Martha Woodford. Last month Prue sounded more like Judi Dench]'

In fact, the one-off Prue was played by Judi Dench, but the listener's point was well-made.

Much of rural Britain has, of course, become middle-class - there are wine bars in market towns like Borchester, and squires have sold Ambridge Halls to self-made computer millionaires all across the country. Mr Baseley, who was often critical of the programme after he left it in 1971, acknowledged that the changes in Ambridge mirrored life. 'I only have to compare the village that I came to live in some 25 years ago . . . From a truly rural community it has, over the years, become a dormitory for commuters.' If anything, Ambridge has a lower proportion of in-comers than the average Home Counties village.

David Blunkett, the Labour health spokesman, has been a devoted listener since the beginning. 'I enjoyed it more in the Fifties,' he says, but he thinks it still reflects life pretty fairly. 'Major's Ambridge has mugging in the local shop, uncontrolled traffic on the green, growth in teenage pregnancies, people squatting in empty cottages, the landlords of the Bull having their business sold over their heads: it's an 'I'm all right' society, rather than a caring small community. But I still listen. I don't listen with the same comfortable feeling. The producers don't know whether to be a world apart or to reflect the changes.'

It is a familiar complaint. Jock Gallagher, who took charge in 1971, wrote: 'The one hint we keep getting is that many listeners would like the programme to remain just a little removed from the real world . . .' This week, Peggy Wooley has decided to sell the Bull to the wrong person, Clive Horobin is holed-up, escaped from prison, in the Carters' semi. Meanwhile Ambridge is preparing to restage a Civil War battle on Lakey Heath. How unreal can you get?

(Photographs omitted)

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