There's just enough muck in Ambridge

`I've been listening to The Archers for 40 years and I think the scriptwriters are being realistic'
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The Independent Online
The bucolic bliss of a country childhood - it's an image that everyone shares, even those who grew up as townies. But sex and death are the facts of life and the sins of the 20th century exist even in villages, even in the fictional hamlet of Ambridge.

It was ever thus, but you would never know it from the lamentations of those protesting that The Archers, 46 years old, has shed its cosy, traditional chintz and is rampaging naked through the garden of political correctness.

The furore was sparked by William Smethurst, a former producer and author of a vitriolic book attacking the programme's present editor, Vanessa Whitburn, and describing the show as "a ferment of greed, sexual passion and family discord, racial hatred and rampant, radical feminism".

This comes as something of a shock to the average listener, trying feverishly to remember an episode that could provoke such a lurid reaction - Lizzie's spats with Nigel Pargeter's mum? Neil Carter's almost-affair with the wicked Mo? Phil Archer taking up cooking? Radical? Perhaps Mr Smethurst means that many women work in Ambridge, some outside the house.

The flames of the "Archers row" were fanned this weekend by claims that Tony Parkin, the agricultural story editor, is resigning because he, too, is fed up with the changes wrought in Ambridge. He declined to comment, but a BBC spokesman pointed out that Mr Parkin, who gave the show almost a year's notice, will be 70 when he bows out in November.

Yet, despite the complaints of Mr Smethurst, the reality in many rural areas makes the Ambridge of today's airwaves look rather like the village in aspic he aspires to. Bromsgrove, the model for Borchester, the town nearest to Ambridge in the series, offers mouth-watering fare for the Archers script-writers.

A short visit yesterday suggested just a few of the local conflicts. The local Tory MP, Roy Thomason, has decided to abandon the battle for Bromsgrove at the next election, after a business venture ran into financial problems. Council plans to build an arts, leisure and shopping complex on the town's recreation ground are also certain to spark local protests.

Brian Carter - no relation to the fictional Susan and Neil - has been burgled twice in the past year. "Bromsgrove used to be like a village, but now it's grown into a big town,'' Mr Carter, a taxi driver, said. "A lot of kids are taking crack, ecstasy and cannabis - even the 14-year- olds.''

Actually the drug abuse portrayed in The Archers is rather low key in comparison - the rebellious Kate Aldridge using marijuana and ecstasy, her boyfriend Roy disapproving of it. A survey of school-children in East Sussex found that 20 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds had tried an illegal drug.

West Mercia Police recently set up roadblocks in an operation to stop hundreds of party-goers from holding a rave in a village near Bromsgrove, while the latest edition of the Bromsgrove Messenger tells of a 15-year- old trapped inside a Metro after he crashed while being chased by a police car.

"The whole atmosphere has completely changed. I've been listening to The Archers for 40 years and I think the scriptwriters are being realistic,'' Mr Carter said. "There is violence at weekends when people come out of the pubs." All of which is far worse than the type of trouble that happens in Ambridge, where punters tend to slip in to The Bull for a single pint, rather than lounging around until closing time.

Much has been made by Archers' critics of the fact that the landlord of the rival Cat and Fiddle has been outed as a homosexual. Given the often-quoted statistic that one in 10 men is gay, this does not seem excessive; not all gay men live in London or Manchester.

And the town of Droitwich, near Bromsgrove, boasts a vicar almost too exciting for The Archers. Apparently the Rev Ron Waters, angered by the building of 200 houses on green-belt land, stormed out of a council meeting shouting "Hitler is back, Sieg Heil". I can't see Ambridge's (female) vicar going that far.

Mr Smethurst also criticised a story-line in which the Asian solicitor, Usha Gupta, is attacked by racist thugs. "These things just don't happen,'' he said. But they do, and the isolation felt by black and Asian Britons living in the country can be worse than the pressures of the city.

Which leaves sex. A double entendre last year between John Archer, who breeds organic pigs, and his girlfriend Hayley Jordan - "I've got to get my pork set up"; "Oh John not in public" - upset Mary Whitehouse ("It's a sad day when smut comes to Ambridge," she said at the time). How on earth did she cope in the 1960s, with, for example, the birth of Jennifer Aldridge's illegitimate child Adam? Or, for that matter, with Jennifer's four children by three men?

Rural life, the critics say, is just not as interesting as Radio 4's version. Tony Finn, a businessman in Bromsgrove, thinks "the scriptwriters have got it wrong if they are trying to project startling events they hope will appeal to townies and big-city folk''. He said the team "should come down to the local pub and listen to the gossip'', adding that: "I suspect they would find it all rather boring."

And so would the listeners. The Archers is not supposed to be a fly- on-the-wall documentary, it's entertainment, fiction, drama. Actually, though, the story-lines in The Archers are mostly concerned with all our daily cares - work, the family, love affairs, requited or not - the writers have always pulled dramatic stories out when necessary.

It is no longer intended to educate farmers about warble-fly, but in the recent past has addressed the BSE scare, the possibility that badgers can infect cattle with TB and how to deal with a bat infestation.

But as it began in didactic mode, so it needed a story to sugar the pill. "People have this sort of fond memory of The Archers as being all cosy teas around the table at Brookfield, and what they forget is it was written for many years by the two writers who wrote Dick Barton Secret Agent,'' said Keri Davies, senior producer at The Archers. "They told people ripping yarns, and that is how they dragged them in as listeners."

In earlier years, listeners grappled with the death of Doris Archer in a barn fire, the revelation that a retired officer was in fact a British spy, and Tom Forrest's acquittal on manslaughter charges - he shot Bob Larkin dead in a fight shortly after the latter had made eyes at Tom's girlfriend Prue.

Despite the false memory syndrome so beloved of the British and summed up by John Major as warm beer and old aunts cycling, the countryside and those who live in it are just as red in tooth and claw as townies. And so are The Archers. But don't worry too much, Mr Smethurst - it's all made up.