The latest racy plot line to scandalise the village - a love triangle pitting two brothers against each other in a paternity battle - has seen listeners tuning in to the serial in their droves. The audience for the lunchtime edition of The Archers shot up by more than quarter of a million to a record high of 2.44m between July and September compared to the previous three months, industry Rajar figures show.
When the figures for the evening broadcast and Sunday morning omnibus are added, a total of 4.86m people listened to the radio soap in the third quarter of 2005, the highest overall audience for more than two years.
They have been hearing the saga of the brothers Ed and Will Grundy and their fight for the affections of the latter's wife, Emma. The story peaked last month when Emma left her husband for Ed, claiming that he, not Will, was the father of her baby, George. The Radio Times writer Alison Graham, a long-term fan, said: "It's been a really great story. They give things time to grow and breathe. It's not instant gratification. This story has been building for a year. They are given time to work things out naturally rather than a TV soap which can have an explosion every week."
A spokeswoman for Archers Addicts, the show's official fan club, said the storyline had stimulated plenty of debate among members. "It's been great fun. Everyone has been disagreeing about whose fault it all is.
"One generally accepted thing is the high quality of the acting. Even if people don't like the story, that has drawn them in."
Fans have also been taking advantage of new technology to hear the 54-year-old serial. In September, more than half a million listened to episodes using the BBC's Radio Player, which gives access yo shows up to seven days after the first broadcast. Already the most listened-to show on Radio Player, The Archers was downloaded by an extra 150,000 people last month.
While listeners seem to thrive on the complicated sex lives of characters, other themes are not so popular. For two Christmases in a row, the drama attracted criticism over plot lines involving a drug addict and a rape, prompting Sir John, the Rumpole of the Bailey writer, to say that it had "lost its way".
Speaking at the launch of Radio 4's autumn schedule last month, the station's controller, Mark Damazer, denied he was aiming to "sex up" the flagship radio serial. "The Archers has to have high drama and sustaining material beneath it," Mr Damazer said.
"The point about sex in The Archers is I'm not saying to all the writers and production team they should sex it up, only that if there are emotional relationships between people, the fact there is a sexual aspect is something that should not be hidden."
Last year saw The Archer's first gay kiss, generally deemed tasteful by critics, but the soap is no stranger to torrid sex scenes. As long ago as 1980, Shula Archer had sex on a picnic rug with a journalist from the Borchester Echo.
Meanwhile, with Emma preparing to allow a DNA test to establish the identity of her baby's father, The Archers promises to grip listeners for some time to come.
Battle of the airwaves
London's favourite radio station for 32 years, 95.8 Capital FM, yesterday lost its crown, overtaken by Heart FM. The GCapMedia flagship saw its weekly audience plummet by 16.9 per cent to 1.8 million between July and September, official Rajar listening figures indicated. The average number of weekly listeners to Heart 106.2FM leapt by 5.6 per cent to 1.9 million.
While Heart overtook Capital in terms of total listening hours two years ago, it is the first time it has beaten its rival in both reach (the average number of listeners who tune in each week) and share of the audience.
Rajar figures are crucial to commercial radio stations, because advertisers use them to decide where to buy space.
In the highly competitive London breakfast radio market, Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles overtook Capital's Johnny Vaughan. Moyles also celebrated his highest-ever weekly audience of 6.5 million listeners, up 0.24 million on the previous quarter.
Heart's Jamie Theakston closed the gap with Vaughan, with 883,000 listeners, just 10,000 fewer than his rival. Vaughan's remains the number one commercial breakfast radio show in London, but in the quarter he lost 84,000 listeners.
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