Fifty years of 'The Archers' is quite enough

By Terence Blacker
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The Independent Online

It seems almost gratuitously cruel that, a full two months before the 50th anniversary of that venerable daily celebration of Englishness, The Archers, the publicity has begun. Rumours of shocking plot-turns and walk-on parts for celebrities have been carefully leaked. The BBC, which now devotes most of its time and our money to puffing its own products, is gearing up for an orgy of Ambridge-related documentaries and tributes. Radio 4's new controller Helen Boaden has controversially - there's a whiff of spin-doctory here - admitted that some people find the series "impenetrable... It is absolutely not a switch-on for new listeners."

It seems almost gratuitously cruel that, a full two months before the 50th anniversary of that venerable daily celebration of Englishness, The Archers, the publicity has begun. Rumours of shocking plot-turns and walk-on parts for celebrities have been carefully leaked. The BBC, which now devotes most of its time and our money to puffing its own products, is gearing up for an orgy of Ambridge-related documentaries and tributes. Radio 4's new controller Helen Boaden has controversially - there's a whiff of spin-doctory here - admitted that some people find the series "impenetrable... It is absolutely not a switch-on for new listeners."

Personally, I have not found penetration a problem - I understand it all too well. Gritting my teeth through the ghastly, gather-round-the-maypole theme-tune, I can without difficulty pick on the mix of plot-lines - the tragic (someone getting cancer, someone else getting booted out of his house), the racy (a husband having an affair), the semi-comic (attempts to put on a village production of The Mikado). I am all too aware of the self-conscious manner in which contemporary issues - organics, overworked farmers, drugs, family break-up, BSE, GM, BVD - have been shoe-horned into the narrative to provide spurious relevance and seriousness.

Helen Boaden implies that those unwilling to listen to this tosh are unaccustomed to listening to radio drama, that it appeals to those "practised in creating pictures and characters in their heads" but, as someone who spends most days doing precisely that, I reject this patronising analysis. A few painful minutes of an episode instantly creates a picture in my head. It is of actors standing in a studio doing accents, while the special-effects gang go to work with a birdsong and tractor tape in the background.

Of course, The Archers has a place on Radio 4, just as The Organist Entertains does on Radio 2: older listeners should not be forgotten in the rush to contemporaneity. It is when The Archers is proclaimed, sometimes by quite sane people, to be the BBC's "best-loved radio programme" that one despairs.

Throughout my life, the series has represented a version of England that wearies and depresses me, with its chats in the pub, its little domestic dramas, its comfy, smug expression of people caught in a 1950s, Sunday Express time-warp. When I was young, I believed that it was a generational problem but, now that I am as middle-aged as the programme has always been, I discover to my relief that I loathe it more than ever.

Although I believe that anyone who truly loves The Archers has, spiritually at least, one foot in the grave, I have tried now and then to understand the problem. As healthily prurient as the next person, I fell for the advance publicity surrounding the series's first on-air sex scene and tuned in. Dear oh dear. Someone with the characteristically stagy name of Sid Perks was meant to be having it off with (bring out your clichés) a country and western singer called Jolene. Their grope in the shower was a particularly English event - brief, embarrassing and conveying as much sexual tension as a dose of swine fever.

Fans of The Archers are creepily vocal in their enthusiasm and are forever setting up sad little websites for fellow-addicts, but I suspect that I am not alone in my allergy. Briefly, I had hoped that Helen Boaden was one of us and that she would instruct her staff to produce a 50th anniversary episode in which the entire cast, and their pets, fall into vat of slurry but, tragically, she has expressed her commitment to this dreary national institution.

In this case, I regret that I have no alternative but to fly to the other side of the world to escape the growing clamour of Archers-related publicity. I shall be filing my next column from Australia.

terblacker@aol.com

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