Francis Wheen: The country's not the place for a quiet life

One wonders how many of these anti-Archers gripers actually live in the countryside

Is there any sex or violence in the countryside? Not according to some listeners to The Archers, Radio 4's long-running "everyday story of country folk". The merest snog gives them a fit of the vapours, and as for assault or arson – well, look at their reaction to the recent torching of a barn at Brookfield, part of a well-deserved campaign of intimidation against dreary David Archer.

"Fans switch off as Archers turns to the dark side" was the headline in yesterday's Mail on Sunday, reporting "widespread anger from the show's more traditional fans" at how the show has been "sensationalised" since a former EastEnders producer arrived as acting editor last month. How widespread? From an audience of 4.85 million, 100 listeners are supporting a protest on the official Archers website. "This," one of them harrumphs, "is not what we want to listen to, and is not what The Archers is all about."

God, you may recall, said something similar when Adam and Eve sensationalised the Garden of Eden by eating his forbidden fruit. And Archers fans have been grumbling like this for decades. In September 1955, on the day that ITV began broadcasting, Grace Archer was incinerated while rescuing her horse from a blazing stable. "A silly, cheap, unworthy way of getting BBC publicity," the News Chronicle thundered. "The men who run The Archers have clearly turned their mission to mirror 'life' into a mania."

"I have listened to The Archers since I was four years old," David Blunkett MP wrote to The Independent in April 1989, "and am sad to say that it is fast becoming a rather silly soap opera". The gist of these complaints is that "village life is less exciting than the BBC would have us believe", as The Times claimed 20 years ago after the village shop was raided by armed robbers.

One wonders how many of these gripers actually live in the countryside. I do, and in the past year several of my farming neighbours have had arson attacks. Only a fortnight ago my daughter-in-law had to lock her doors because a gun-toting cop-killer had been spotted in the local churchyard. (He then shot himself in front of a 76-year-old villager who was mowing the grass.) A couple of years ago I was visited by a police sergeant from Stansted Airport, 10 miles away, who urged us to contact him at once if we noticed Al-Qa'ida-type terrorists lurking in the fields around our cottage.

When the latest ludicrous brouhaha dies down, life in Ambridge will continue as it always has: a brief flurry of drama every year or two, followed by a gentle slide into dullness that should satisfy even the most exacting "lifelong fans". This isn't Mayhem Parva, nor even the Garden of Eden: it's the village that put the Bore into Borsetshire.

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