04.25.14 9:45 AM ET
America, Presenting Your New Addiction: ‘The Archers’
Don’t let the 17,336 episodes you have missed put you off. You have missed a lot of milking of cows, pints of “Shires” drunk at The Bull public house, sheep (so many sheep), just over 60 lambing seasons, and the odd tragedy, like Grace dying in the barn fire (1955), poor John in a tractor accident (1998), and the suicide of gamekeeper Greg (2004).
And now, finally, a plum moment to tune in for first-timers to the world’s longest-running radio soap opera: a hideously botched non-wedding. After months of grand planning, in Thursday’s episode Tom Archer, sausage magnate—a proto-J.R. Ewing with pork as his obsession rather than oil—ended his relationship with Kirsty just as they were about to exchange vows. He felt, he told his grandmother, that after the death of his big brother John he became the “heir not the spare” in his family, and the prospect of marriage suddenly made him feel like the adult he was thrown into becoming.
Kirsty, understandably, was not impressed at being dumped on her dream day, and her bereft wail filled the church. The reaction of The Archers Twitter-faithful was summed up by one listener: “Oooohhhhhhhh.”
In Britain, The Archers has 5 million listeners, and, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (the BBC’s all-talk, chattering class radio station), is the channel’s highest-rated show after its news broadcasts. The Archers’ fanbase loves it just as fiercely as its many detractors—who see it as laughably hokey—loathe it.
The show has been a compulsive, daily earworm for Middle England since its inception in 1951 and focuses on the sometimes very small (“Did you remember to shut the gate?”), sometimes extremely momentous, events befalling the residents of the fictional village of Ambridge in the fictional county of Borsetshire, which is notionally in the heart of England. It goes out six days a week, and is 13 minutes long. The magic of radio means your imagination does much of the work conjuring all your favorites’ faces. After Tom and Kirsty’s non-wedding, Friday’s episode will likely feature more crying in the cowshed.
You will, by accident listening to the show, become an expert-not-really in matters of arable farming, organic crops, and milking. The Archers takes such things very seriously, and employs a full-time agricultural adviser.
Archers listeners are by far the most proprietorial of all soap-opera fans. The largest controversy in recent years attended the death of the very posh Nigel Pargetter, in a tragic fall from his home, for the 60th anniversary episode. For most outraged listeners, this merely confirmed that The Archers was going the way of headline-grabbing, violent-death-loving TV soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street.
The joy, as they see it, of The Archers is that it moves at a gentle pace, studded with some joshing down at the pub, or supper being cooked, or gossip in the village shop. It is mainly middle class, focused on the many tendrils of the land-owning Archer family of the show’s title, although its most loved characters are possibly the Grundys, a working-class family of tenant farmers who duck and dive, and whose two sons, Ed and Will, are locked in terminal animosity, sourced to the latter’s former wife Emma now being coupled with the latter.
Illicit sex on the radio is more memorable than on TV. One legendary Archers scene featured Sid, publican of The Bull, getting horny in the shower with his then-mistress Jolene (an ex-country-western singer, now publican of The Bull herself). The goodly Ruth Archer almost had an affair with Sam the herdsman behind David’s back (but in the end, she said no to Sam, or “noooo” as she comes from Newcastle), and rushed home to David, who was making spaghetti bolognese.
We have also endured Shula, or St. Shula as she is known for her sanctimony, losing her husband, Mark, and then having a gambler for a husband in Alistair. Poor Aldridge matriarch Jennifer was cheated upon by her husband, Brian, and then after his mistress Siobhan died, took on Ruairi (pronounced Rory), his bastard son, as her own.
Archers stories take months to unfold, and then fold themselves into the present, and so we know when Jennifer demands a new kitchen from Brian—and this, yes, is a storyline—that in her tone with him which brooks no dissent, the unspoken stick she holds over him is the constant recompense he owes her for all he has put her through.
Of course, The Archers has characters come and go, but it also has a vintage stock of longstanding characters that anchor the show. Tony, who with his wife, Pat “went organic” as a farmer in the mid-1980s, today wants to reassert himself before everything passes to his son Tom, and is furious at his mother, Peggy, for being so dismissive with him.
When I was growing up, the residents seemed to either be relentlessly going in and out of the village shop, or worrying about sheep. But while the show has gotten quicker, thank goodness, it still sows its stories stealthily. In the show’s biggest unfolding story right now, Helen, a romantically tragic character, thinks she has found love with Rob. But he, it has emerged, is a quiet monster, slowly wearing her down with criticisms and mood swings, and cutting her off from her friends. His creepiness is given an extra-insidious edge on radio.
Listeners are also immersed in the travails of David and Ruth, as she recovers from miscarrying a baby, and David’s mother, Jill, moving in (this seems a good idea, as Jill is lonely and Ruth and David busy farming, but Jill’s brilliance at home-making makes crap-cook Ruth self-conscious). St. Shula is coming to terms with son Daniel’s decision to join the army. And there is the specter of Borchester Land, the mega-corporation that seems to be in the business of chomping up as much of Ambridge as possible in its uncaring profit-obsessed jaws, spoiling all that is green, pleasant, and community-minded in its wake.
The genius of The Archers is that although you are just listening to it, it is—like all radio, and radio drama in particular—a master of firing the imagination into evoking images to accompany the sounds. Although the serial is taped in a studio in Birmingham, through various wheezes it evokes the sound of rural life: When a cow gives birth, it is the mixture of the squelching of yogurt (set yogurts work better than runny), combined with kneeling on a pile of recording tape (straw), with a wet towel; the sound of a gate opening is achieved by unfolding an ironing board, while dominoes in a glass of water produce the sound of ice being added to a glass.
If you listen for nothing else, listen for the village gossip Lynda Snell. Lynda isn’t from the countryside; she is both a nosey-parker and bossy-boots, although—in her tender scenes with her husband Robert or with her friend Vicky, who’s caring for a child, Bethany, with Down syndrome—we have seen another side of her: kind and tender. But she is never better than when being offended, bitching over her garden fence, or worried about her beloved pet llamas.
Because we have to imagine Ambridge, its faces and fields, pubs and country roads, it makes a listener’s attachment that much keener—at highly dramatic moments, like Thursday’s non-wedding, excruciatingly so. The scenes in the church vestry where Tom dumped Kirsty were listened to with mouths agape, and listeners’ heads in their hands. The intimacy of radio makes The Archers special. That, and the ingenious use of yogurt pots.