Tumpty tumty tumty tum, tumty tumty tum tee. It’s 7.02pm, and the nation is settling down to the latest installment of The Archers, Britain’s longest-running soap opera, gearing up to its 60th anniversary in January next year. Only members of Archers Addicts, the official fan club, who are now in the throes of organising their diamond-jubilee event, are likely to know that the tune that opens the programme is Barwick Green, a light orchestral ditty by Arthur Wood, who enjoyed evoking his native Yorkshire.
However, go to Barwick-in-Elmet, and there is no green, only a maypole on a traffic island. The bucolic image that the snatch of music conjures up-regulars outside the pub, ribbons being tied in Shire horses’ tails, hay meadows -bears little relation to the genuine English village that inspired it. But that’s The Archers for you. Sound is everything. Setting and characters are all the more vivid for being left, visually, to the listener’s imagination. I know. I’ve been to Ambridge, and it isn’t quite what you would expect.
The theme tune fades away, and it’s Lynda Snell, the village bossy-boots. Lynda, as listeners will know, is a relative newcomer to Ambridge, whose relentlessly suburban point of view was pilloried when she first arrived in 1986. Now, like other newcomers to villages around Britain, she buzzes about as a necessary irritant, chasing up volunteers for the community shop.
Shula and her mother, Jill Archer, are sorting through Phil’s clothes. Phil’s death was forced on the scriptwriters when Nor-man Painting, who played the character (Jill’s husband), died at the age of 85 last October, an event treated throughout the media as a milestone in national life. The vicar, Alan Franks, looks in to ask if he can still pitch the tent that he’s sleeping in for Lent outside Glebe Cottage. Jill decides to give a blazer that still has its tags on to Bert Fry, the retired farmhand who still helps out at Brookfield, the Archers’ family farm.
Meanwhile, Brenda Tucker, aged 29, is feeling low, having been rejected from another job, despite a 2.1 degree from Fel-persham University. Brenda is the daughter of Mike Tucker, whose dairy farm went bankrupt. If you listen regularly, you will know the other storylines. If you don’t, you may see how easy it is to get sucked in.
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The episode I’ve just described was written by Mary Cutler, the longest-serving of the team of writers, who’s been contributing scripts for 31 years. That is very Archers. The programme inspires loyalty among the people who create it no less than among its listeners. Nearly five million of the latter tune in every evening (or catch the next day’s afternoon repeat, the omnibus edition on Sunday or Listen Again online). That’s the biggest listenership of any of Radio 4’s output after Today-more, points out Vanessa Whit-burn, editor since 1992, than many daytime television offerings. It’s a phenomenon, a national treasure.
The tribal wisdom built up by writers, producers and cast is supplemented by an archivist, able to provide chapter and verse on the remote past. Slips are not allowed. Not all of the 5,000-strong members of Archers Addicts are ‘hyper-obsessed’, but a few are, admits Hedli Niklaus, who not only plays Kathy Perks (and, with a gift for voices, other characters over the years), but also runs the club. Once, somebody objected that all the cows sounded the same, so the team recorded more. ‘People increasingly want to own Ambridge, and don’t want it to be different from their imagination. Perhaps it’s the one thing in their lives that they can control.’
The sound of the countryside
Come with me, and, if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll take you to the real Ambridge. The Mailbox in central Birmingham, an inner-city development to which the BBC moved from Pebble Mill five years ago, may seem about as far removed as it could be from Borsetshire. But the noises of Ambridge, or the things that generate them, appear little changed.
There’s the ironing board that does duty as a farm gate, the kitchen (which Ottie, the unheard Polish waitress, really should go over with a dab of bleach), equipped with both Aga and electric cooker, its sink littered with wine bottles, thermoses, kettles, cups -although you’d need the constitution of one of Eddie Grundy’s ferrets to drink out of one.
It’s a multifunctional space that might serve as any of Ambridge’s many kitchens, the village shop or The Bull. Today, a baby, omnipresent but disembodied, babbles spookily, yet no infant is to be seen. The burble comes from the steamer-trunk-sized loudspeakers -one of a series of baby noises that the sound-effects person is trying for size. ‘No, too young,’ judges blonde Kate Oates, one of the producers, a compara-tive baby herself in Archers terms, having only worked on the series for seven years.
There’s a bank of dummy doors and windows on casters, and all the doorbells of Ambridge are mounted on a board and labelled (woe betide the producer who mistakes the ding-dong of Nightingale Farm for the ring of Ambridge Hall-Archers Addicts would be onto it like a shot).
Crunching gravel comes from heaps of the quarter inch tape that used to strew every cutting-room floor; Champagne corks pop, not from a bottle, but from a bicycle pump, the fizz in the glass being liver salts. Ice cubes in Lillian’s gin and tonic are really dominoes.
And, if you want to shout from the top of Lakey Hill, simply walk round the corner of the acoustic snail. This is in the sinister-sounding Dead Room, its sides padded with sound-absorbent triangles of black foam, and replicates the way that sounds dis-appear in the great outdoors. The snail swallows voices so completely that they appear to be far off.
These tricks of the radio-drama trade are easy to pull off, in comparison to the job of juggling the different constituencies within the audience. Timothy Bentinck, who also happens to be the Earl of Portland, although he doesn’t use the title, is the actor -luvvie-ly bearded-who has played David Archer for 25 years.
‘The country listenership enjoys the endorsement of what they actually live,’ he tells me. ‘To townies, Ambridge may be a halcyon idea, the place that they might much rather live-old-fashioned England, with no yellow lines, no riots. This is their bolt-hole, their little cottage in the country.’ Since Phil’s death, David has become Archer-in-chief, responsible for running Brookfield.
As it was in the beginning, is now and forever will be, this programme is about farming folk-hardly an easy brief in the years when farming was in the doldrums. But, according to Felicity Finch, who plays David’s Geordie wife, Ruth, the tide has turned. ‘In the past 10 years, farming has become news. People are automatically inter-ested in the subject. Farming has become very relevant again.’
When the first episode was broadcast nationally on January 1, 1951, The Archers -true to the Reithian principles that still informed the BBC-had an educational purpose. Food was still rationed, and the idea was that farmers should be gently brought up to speed about the latest agricultural methods. Those days are long past, but accuracy remains a lodestone, with Graham Harvey inspecting the mud on the programme’s boots as agricultural story editor.
But, as in any village, farming is now only one among many occupations-editors consulted the Serious Fraud Office about the misdemeanours that have landed Matt Crawford, the rough diamond who chaired Borchester Land, in prison. Then there are the social issues: breast cancer, anorexia, racism, David and Ruth’s 17-year-old daughter Pip dating a 27-year-old man.
‘People sometimes say we’re doing more racy stories,’ observes Vanessa Whitburn. ‘We aren’t. There were always dramatic stories-the nation came to a halt when Phil’s first wife, Grace, died in a fire in the stables in 1955. The difference is that now, we run far more stories. In the 1950s, there might have been three or four stories a week; now, there’ll be eight or 10. Listeners expect things to move at a faster pace. They can take in more.’
With the youngest scriptwriter being 26, the age span of those who create the plots doesn’t quite reflect that of the acting cast, which goes from one (Abbie) to 90 (June Spencer, aka Peggy Woolley). All have different points of view about unmarried, not-in-a-long-term-relationship Helen Archer’s decision to have a baby by IVF. As for the Grundys’ complicated relationships, with Will Grundy’s wife, Emma, almost causing fratricide by setting up with his brother Eddie…
But this is also, reassuringly, Radio 4; the lightbulb at the top of a three-legged metal stand in the middle of the set, next to the pillow that used to be used as a baby (now a headless doll) on a less-than-spotless filing cabinet, says a lot about The Archers’ old-fashioned, but perfectly functional
values. This curious object, trailing wires, doesn’t supply a sound effect-it lights up to show that they’re recording. Shhhh, it’s gone green now. We’d better go.