Why Britain (and Anna Ford) is swearing by the Grundys

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The Independent Online
When Today programme presenter Anna Ford described Simon Pemberton, the ruthless landowner in the Archers radio soap, as a "shit" on air yesterday morning, there were at least four million listeners who must have agreed with her, even if her language came as something of a shock at 8.25 in the morning.

Some listeners have even crossed the boundary between fiction and reality and the BBC revealed yesterday that the fictitious Mr Pemberton had received 20 pieces of hate mail, including a death threat, at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios.

Listeners will find out by the end of this week who wins the six-month long battle for Grange Farm after the soap's Agricultural Lands Tribunal met for the first time on air last night to consider the Grundys' case. Those knowledgeable in farming law believe whether or not Mr Pemberton really is a shit could affect the outcome.

Vanessa Whitburn, the programme's editor, is remaining tight-lipped about the outcome of the case, but said yesterday that her fictitious tribunal will give a decision quicker than the real thing: "It goes on for a few more days, but it comes to a conclusion rather quicker than in real life to give listeners a bit of a breather. After all, this has been going on since October."

Anna Ford denied yesterday that she was a big Archers fan and she apologised for her bad language.

Yet the chaotic farming family has garnered support from agriculture minister Angela Browning and the Princess of Wales' lawyer Anthony Julius, who offered free legal advice.

Even the Labour Party, which probably sees the Grundys as very old Labour, has come out against the thrusting Mr Pemberton.

In real life, the 40 per cent of farmers who are tenants are some of the few well-protected workers left in Britain. The Agricultural Lands Tribunal was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1947 to give farmers a right of appeal against landlords.

It met only 56 times last year, and saw only three cases relating to eviction. Unfortunately for the Grundys, all three cases were won by the landlords.

No one, it seems, wants to back Mr Pemberton. Even Oliver Harwood, spokesman for the County Landowners' Association, said yesterday that while Mr Pemberton was not necessarily a shit in farming terms - Mr Pemberton is following CLA policy by turning disused farm buildings into business units to create rural jobs - the CLA isn't best pleased to be associated with a landowner who slapped around his ex-girlfriend Shula Archer last year.

Mr Harwood believes the Grundys will keep their farm because there are two parts to the tribunal's deliberations: first Mr Pemberton has to prove the Grundys are inefficient farmers; however the tribunal can still decide, in the words of the 1947 act: "To withhold the notice to quit if it seems to them that a fair and reasonable landlord would not insist on repossession."

If even Today presenters and government ministers are in agreement about Mr Pemberton, it would seem there is little chance of him being found "fair and reasonable."

If it sounds like the Archers is starting to engage dangerously with the real world it would not be the first time.

Michael Howard the Home Secretary was lobbied by listeners in 1993 when the character Susan Carter was jailed for six months for helping her brother while he was on the run from the police. The most controversial plot twist was in 1955, when the soap's writers killed off its favourite matriarch Doris Archer on the night that ITV first launched.

Vanessa Whitburn denied that the climax to the Grundy story was timed to compete with the launch of Channel 5. "They had the Spice Girls and got two million viewers," she said. "We have an agricultural tribunal and get four million listeners which tells you something."

The story so far

The Archers, Britain's longest-running soap, started in 1951 as part of a propaganda effort to get farmers to grow more food. In recent years the editor, Vanessa Whitburn, has spiced up the traditionally staid storylines about lambing to include sex, drugs and organic yoghurt.

Ratings have increased by about 500,000 to four million, making it Radio 4's biggest programme after the Today programme.

Simon Pemberton, 37, is the manifestation of the new, racier Archers characters introduced by Ms Whitburn. He is described as the nastiest character to appear in the soap. He is son of the benign squire Guy Pemberton, who owned Ambridge's biggest estate.

He inherited the farm after pushing his father to a heart attack by constantly arguing with him.

His biggest crime in the eyes of listeners was to two-time his girlfriend, the decidedly wet Shula Archer, and then slap her around when she confronted him with evidence of his affair.

Mr Pemberton comes across as a swivel-eyed Thatcherite who believes there is no room for sentimentality or nostalgia in farming. He believes the Grundys are hopeless farmers and he could make more money renting their land out to David Archer.

The Grundys have been The Archers's stock feckless peasants since the soap launched.

The Grundy farm, Grange farm, has never been prosperous and the head of the family, Eddie Grundy, usually spends his time in dodgy get-rich quick schemes rather than farming.