Brian Viner: The real drama in Ambridge is online

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The Independent Online

All human life is there. Love, hate, bigotry, tolerance, spite, kindness, pedantry, brevity and above all, the conviction that Ambridge is the centre of the known universe. I refer not to The Archers but to The Archers website. I have never listened to more than two consecutive minutes of The Archers, but for entertainment value, not to mention shock, hilarity and a vivid insight into the human condition, I can't believe that it holds a candle in a hayloft (if not a past storyline, then surely a future one) to the extraordinary online rants of its devotees.

My wife, Jane, has failed to make an Archers fan of me, yet keeps me enthralled practically every day with news of the latest exchanges on the message boards, and although I have written about this before, it bears further scrutiny in the wake of Nigel Pargeter's fatal fall from the roof of his country pile, the plot development devised to coincide with the show's 60th anniversary, and one that was intended "to shake Ambridge to the core".

Well, I can't speak for Ambridge, but there is certainly sustained vibrating in the cores of some Radio 4 listeners. Almost a fortnight after Nigel's terribly sad yet entirely fictional demise there are continuing histrionics on the messageboards, with not merely wrath but in many cases real, fetid loathing directed at the serial's editor, Vanessa Whitburn.

If there is such a thing as a typical Archers fan, it is surely a middle-class pillar of the community, genteelly fond of home baking, golden retrievers, and a gin and slimline tonic "when the sun is over the yardarm". And yet also capable, judging by the online evidence, of joining a hysterical witch-hunt.

Not that I'm calling Vanessa Whitburn a witch. I'm sure she's charming. But several of her critics have been far more intemperate than that, demanding that she be sacked(one blogger has taken the name P45 4 VW), and furiously accusing her of "murdering" Nigel in a craven act of cheap sensationalism, a sell-out worthy of EastEnders or Coronation Street but unworthy of the blessed Archers. Don't they know that the TV soaps domultiple deaths in plane, tram and auto-mobile crashes when they're aiming for sensationalism; they don't have one chapfalling off a roof.

As for the vehement complaint that Nigel was a much-loved character (though Jane thinks he was a bit of a plonker), that surely makes the storyline more rather than less plausible. In real life, nice guys die inaccidents too.

I suspect that these people would tell me that, as an Archers agnostic, I can't begin to understand their proprietorial zeal. But Jane's been listening for yonks, and she thinks they're bonkers too.

Whitburn, meanwhile, has maintained her dignity, responding to the hate mail bythanking her correspondents for theirfeedback. This, however, has enraged them even further. How dare she call it feedback. They want their letters registered as formal complaints. One blogger even wondered whether the Freedom of Information Act could be invoked to find out how manycomplaints there have been.

Then there's the long open letter from a Mr Thomas, explaining that he and Mrs Thomas had indoctrinated their children in worship of The Archers and now Whitburn has "made liars of my wife and I [sic] by teaching our children that, despite all we've told them, The Archers is just as cynical and meaningless as the TV soaps". She has "taken away the future of their favourite character for a few newspaper headlines," he thunders, and concludes by reporting that all the Thomas hearts are broken.

I'm telling you, neither Ambridge nor even Weatherfield or Walford has anything on it for drama and emotion. The Archers website has become my new favourite soap.

Stumped by the misuse of sporting quotes

This is no time for anyone to sneer at the glorious game of Test cricket, not with England currently on such an Ashes-retaining high, but even so I have made two sightings in recent days of the famous old quote that "cricket is a game which the British, not being a spiritual people, had to invent in order to have some concept of eternity". I suppose it's more affectionate than sneering, and quite amusing in its way, but the strange thing is that in one instance I saw it attributed to someone called Lord Mancroft, and in the other instance to George Bernard Shaw.

There is similar confusion about another great sporting quote. "A bomb placed under the West Stand at Twickenham would set back the cause of British fascism by 50 years" is sometimes attributed to George Orwell, and sometimes to the journalist Philip Toynbee.

What are we to make of this? That marvellous quotes have many fathers but humdrum quotes are orphans, I suppose.

Unknown beetle plays the name game

A few months ago our neighbour Will Watson, a wildlife consultant, went on a scientific expedition to the rainforests of Mozambique, where he discovered a species of water beetle new to science. His discovery has now been verified by the world's leading water beetle expert, Bernhard von Vondel, and thrillingly, the species has been officially named Haliplus watsoni. Yesterday I told my children that Will had had a water beetle named after him and they were duly impressed. Only later did it emerge that one of them – and I'd better not say which one – had in mind a 2.7mm creature, diving into the pools of Mozambique, called Will.