“That's what you said when you shot the badger!” These words, uttered with dramatic intention, have stayed with me for a long time. It was the denoument of a particularly gripping episode of one of Britain's most popular soap operas, and, not that I follow its plot lines, I am certain that it left its loyal listeners on the edge of their Wesley Barrel sofas. It could only be The Archers. (Quite obviously, it wasn't Eastenders, which would have been: “That's what you said when you shot your brother”.)
The Archers excites opinion in a way that very few other programmes are capable of doing, even though, as far as I'm concerned, the major excitement consists of a dash to find the ‘off’ switch on the radio before the tum-ti-tum strikes up. The woman who has edited the programme for 22 years has just decided to retire, and, in some quarters, this news has been treated with reverence, and a remarkable degree of significance.
Vanessa Whitburn was granted an interview by Eddie Mair - obviously conducted in much more respectful tones than his inquisition of Boris Johnson - and the more conservative newspapers marked her departure with think pieces about where The Archers goes from here. There is much passionate pleading. Return the programme to its rural roots! Forget about the sex and violence, let's have more sausages and combine harvesters! And get rid of the BBC's dastardly metropolitan bias and all that ethnic diversity!
Steady on, chaps, it's only a soap opera. Of course, I know it's much more than that, and the audience for The Archers - whose average age must be getting on for three-score-years-and-ten - regard it as an institution, and are resistant to the imposition of new ideas. Ms Whitburn has been criticised for importing the customs and practices of the modern age to this everyday tale of country folk and, in her time, the mythical village of Ambridge has been infected with such colourful aspects of the real world as homosexuality, infidelity, betrayal, armed robbery and drug abuse.
Plus there's a polyglot nature to the village these days, with various regional British accents and a sprinkling of different nationalities being represented. (Anyone with knowledge of the English countryside will know immediately this is a work of fantasy: most villages of the type portrayed in The Archers are still remarkable for their ethnic homogeneity.) Fans of the show have taken to the internet - I know, it seems somewhat incongruous - to make their feelings known. “I can no longer be bothered with the dumbed-down sensational plotlines”, says one who goes by the moniker 50yearlistener, while another wrote: “Hopefully a new editor will concentrate less on sexual liaisons and more on the place of farming today and its importance to our future in producing high-quality food.”
Yes, sounds like a winning formula to me, full of twists, turns, dramatic potential and some lively discussion on the Common Agricultural Policy. The fact is that, by its very nature, The Archers is an anachronism, and the modern listener wants a bit more from the programme than Tom's sausages, village cricket and, yes, even badgers. Oh, I forgot, we're not talking about modern listeners...