Mad cows hit Ambridge

Eat your heart out Stephen Dorrell, BSE on 'The Archers' means there is a crisis, says Ruth Picardie

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Never mind McDonald's. Forget the British Airways ban. We know that BSE is the mother of all crises because it's being worked into the stately storyline of The Archers. Our great national radio soap opera has resolutely disregarded events as momentous as the royal separation; snubbed health scares as dramatic as necrotising fasciitis; why, it even ignored Hurleygate. Yet on Monday afternoon, the agricultural story editor was put on red alert and Nigel Pargetter (played by Graham Seed) and Phil Archer (Norman Painting) were summoned to Birmingham, gatecrashed another programme and recorded an insert at 6pm, in the nick of time for the episode to be re-edited and broadcast from Pebble Mill at 7.05pm.

Such events have not occurred in living memory.

Programmes are normally recorded a month in advance; late rewrites take place on an occasional basis - most recently during the veal calf outcry and, more idiosyncratically, following the release of Terry Waite. But these are the most frenzied, last-minute changes to have taken place since the venerable series began in 1951, when a boyish Phil Archer responded live to an "important" Budget speech.

Archers fans have been listening to the latest developments with bated breath. Who could forget previous agricultural health crises such as the slaughter of Dan Archer's herd in 1956, following an outbreak of foot- and-mouth disease? The Grundys' troubles could fill a month of programmes: the demise of Joe's herd when half of them were found to be infected with TGB; the feud with David Archer when he reported Eddie for not dipping his sheep; the time Clarrie caught Q fever after drying premature lambs with a hair drier. And what about Mike Tucker's tragic tractor accident, in which he lost an eye?

How, then, would The Archers deal with BSE, in the new, sexy world of British soap opera? A terrible end for resident wild child Kate Aldridge? A spectacular tantrum from the irascible but elusive Grey Gables chef, Jean-Paul? A mass Ambridge conversion to vegetarianism? Perhaps even - God forbid - ruin for the entire Archer family?

This could be more dramatic than Shula's IVF treatment; bigger than Usha and the racist bullies; more exciting, even, than the real-life cameo by Britt Ekland.

The plot began to thicken last Thursday, when a troubled Neil Carter managed to distract John Archer from boring on about his weaners.

Neil: I think we need to wait. The link still hasn't been proved, has it?

John: The [Government says it's the] most likely explanation. That's good enough for me.

Neil: We need more evidence, I reckon.

Hardly nailbiting stuff. But stories begin gently on The Archers, with dramatic integrity. Events were sure to gather momentum by the following week.

Sure enough, BSE reappeared on Monday night. Ellie May - Nigel and Elizabeth's cow-cum-surrogate daughter - seemed "very unsettled". Disappointingly, Phil Archer felt Nigel had nothing to worry about. There followed a long, dull exchange about farming morale, price support and the Government's response:

Nigel: So he [Stephen Dorrell] is still saying the risk is extremely small?

Phil: Providing the existing restrictions are adhered to. And Douglas Hogg suggested those restrictions might be tightened further ...

The story continued along these lines last night. How we Archers fans groaned in disappointment. Had the programme somehow been leaned on by the Government and lapsed back into its early, educational role, officially abandoned in the early Seventies?

Then we remembered. The slow, steady, much-mocked Archers "did" BSE five years ago, when Brian Aldridge was kicked in the head by an infected cow. Operated on for a cerebral abcess, he suffered a post-traumatic epileptic fit, couldn't drink or drive and was put on drugs that made him drowsy. He became so miserable and difficult that his wife, Jennifer, had an affair with her ex-husband, Roger; and their daughter Kate became emotionally disturbed and ran away from home.

Out of touch? Undramatic? Let's see EastEnders top that.

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