I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-one year old university student who listens to The Archers. You know The Archers, right? That stuffy old show on Radio 4 about farming that your gran sometimes puts on when she does the gardening? Well, I promise you that there’s more to the show than that irritating theme tune which is as intrinsic to Radio 4 as John Humphreys, Women’s Hour or Desert Island Discs. I’d like to explain why I like The Archers, and contest that it isn’t stuffy, boring or dated, but rather an intriguing slice of rural escapism that is worth listening to for the mere thirteen minutes it takes out of your day. Sure, I started listening initially as a silly form of procrastination, but I was quickly hooked and now listening to the show is shamelessly part of my everyday routine.
Its tagline has changed from the somewhat patronising ‘an everyday story of country folk’, to ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. These days, ‘folk’ has slightly derogatory connotations, evoking ideas of ‘simple’ people living in a rose-tinted vision of twee village life. ‘Folks’ has a somewhat working-class, ruffian ‘Otherness’ to it, lending the term to a usage of inclusion or exclusion. There is also the more American semantics of the term, which has become embroiled in much political rhetoric, whereby ‘folks’ names a group of people spoken of negatively, or at least in terms of Otherness; as Liesl Schillinger (2014) relates:
Back in August, the [American] President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.
The folks of The Archers are generally not terrorists or rightwing opponents to Obamacare, but characters deserving of empathy and intrigue in their own right. They are no longer parodies or exaggerated exemplars of ‘country life’. What’s more, the show has its own political and sociological structure: a class system that ranges from fieldwork to managing hotels, age differences, cultural conflicts, economic interests and so on. There are the middle-class characters (the farm-owners, those that have inherited property and business – the Archers themselves), the nouveau riche, the business owners, the farmers, the tycoons that want to build a bypass through the beautiful fields, the cooks, the posh-mums, the drinkers – the, ahem, Scottish character Jazzer (a category of his own) – who would give any edgy ‘contemporary drama’ a run for his money. I mean, just look at his character profile on The Archers’ BBC website:
In wilder times he’s been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he’s shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer’s pigs and Mike Tucker’s milk round.
In fact he’s turned the latter into something of an adventure, befriending one or two of his clients rather too readily. Commitment is not in his dictionary, as many Borsetshire women have discovered.
▪Likes – Music, women, illegal substances
▪Dislikes – Authority, healthy food, spiders
▪Highs – A passionate one-night-only with Fallon Rogers, whom he quietly adores
▪Lows – Nearly killing himself with ketamine
Nearly killing himself with ketamine. Well, that’s not a bland old story about sheep escaping or knitting competitions. In fact, the show enacts a careful balance between the weighty yet more banal issues of farming life (the rise in milk prices, methods of pig farming, village fetes and so on) and the meaty drama – extra-marital affairs, interracial relationships, suicide, sex, illness, crime (including arson, drug-dealing and diamond smuggling), business problems, familial conflicts, the joy of enterprise, childbirth, death. The problem of naming children: that amusing storyline where Lynda is sceptical of posh-lady Leonie’s decision to name her child ‘Mowgli’.
Of course, Jazzer is a pretty much reformed character now, enjoying his sessions at the local pub but working hard for other farmers, but there are plenty of other dramas running through the show. For instance, the other week, we got the show’s take on intergenerational conflicts within feminism. When Helen Archer decides she wants to quit her job running Borsetshire Blue Cheese and become a full-time mum, her mother Pat scolds her for casting aside the opportunities that her generation of feminists created. Why would you want to go back to the 1950s, going bored out of your mind? she asks her daughter. Helen insists it is a choice she – not her fiancé Rob – made, but there is something sinister about this whole situation. Lunch ready on the table for him coming home, shelves sparkling after careful dusting and some flamboyant dinner on the table in the evening. Rob’s crooning voice praising it all, urging her with that underlying patronisation to ‘take a break’ from her hard work. Little Henry, the son, lapping it all up. It’s a thought experiment for contemporary debates within feminism, a storyline that explores a real (albeit predominantly middle class) dilemma between finding childcare and returning to work or being a full-time mum. It will be interesting to see where it goes: will Helen continue enjoying this domestic bliss, or will she go mad with boredom, fall back into identity crisis and her eating-disorder and fall out with Rob with all the wrath of Simone de Beauvoir? Time will tell.
The sexual politics of Ambridge also includes the storyline of Elizabeth and Roy’s affair. Roy had been working for her at Lower Loxley, helping her make the ‘Loxfest’ music festival a success, and generally assisting with the business. But when he fell desperately in love with her, and they slept together twice at two music festivals, things got a bit entangled. I mean, he’s married to Hayley and they have two kids. Soon, Elizabeth’s son Freddie started to catch on, and there was all this Eastenders business about him finding a heart-shaped locket Roy had meant to give to Elizabeth and so on. Freddie went all emo, insulting his mother and locking himself in his room, blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit (I love the show’s representation of teenage angst, I really do). So what happened? Elizabeth sacked Roy because she wanted it to end, and Roy was forced to tell Hayley, his wife. The whole affair has become a dominant, listener-baiting storyline, which provides an insightful representation of the effects of marriage breakup on children. There is something quite visceral about Phoebe (Roy and Hayley’s daughter) and her reaction to finding out from Freddie; she starts to completely ignore or else be really mean to her dad, she runs away to stay at her gran’s, she has general overemotional outbursts. You end up feeling sorry for everyone. Even in its short broadcast time, The Archers gets it right, showing all sides and all motivations. No one is a blanket ‘evil’ character, except perhaps Justin Elliott, CEO of Venture Capitalists Damara, who is entangled in the apocalyptic bypass plans. Indeed, many of the characters in the #SaveAmbridge campaign have a personal vendetta against the man. The show itself, however, reveals all sides of the debate, and it’s an education in town planning, enterprise, social geography as well as ‘everyday country life’.
Of course, The Archers in recent years has been subject to certain controversies, not least for its ‘sexed up’ story-lines, which cost them a few thousand viewers back in 2012. Yet I feel the show balances the odd melodrama with sufficient everyday detail. It’s important to represent storylines about for example, Pat and Tony selling their cattle herd, and young Freddie finding his farmer feet, but the odd marital breakdown, court appearance or sexual awakening doesn’t go amiss in twenty-first century drama. There was even (for a while), a la Hollyoaks, ‘Ambridge Extra’, a spinoff on Radio 4 Extra, which focused on the lives of younger Ambridge characters. Well, there were more affairs and a business trip to Russia where Matt Crawford got tangled with the Mafia and ended up sleeping rough. A far cry from the pleasant bleats of sheep. While adding a bit of intrigue, Ambridge Extra only ran for five series before it was axed. Perhaps it was all just a bit too racy for ‘the common listener’. Or maybe it was just that not enough traditional listeners knew how to access it online (since BBC 4 Extra is a digital channel, unlike Radio 4).
There is, furthermore, something a bit postmodern about The Archers. For one thing, it creates an intriguing blur between fact and fiction, often edited last minute to include contemporary real life events as they unfold. For example, the show portrayed reactions to 9/11, the badger cull, the foot and mouth crisis, the London bombings. It corresponds roughly to the progression of real time, so that Christmas comes in Ambridge when Christmas comes in, well, the World Itself. This is one of the biggest appeals for me: the way seasonal changes and events play out in a fictional alterreality, so that I can hear about lambing and cropping and horse riding and so on even while I’m in the city. A lot of my school friends were farmers, so there’s also a bit of nostalgia there too. Perhaps for other listeners, it’s a certain curiosity about what life is like in the farming world, and as we have seen, The Archers does not paint an idyllic utopia of organic food and harmonious living. Like some Biblical fable, there are the floods, fires and diseases too.
Moreover, the show even pulls in real celebrities for cameo appearances. The summer season in Ambridge was perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic Loxfest (which was wracked with drama when the headline act were pulled out following sexual assault charges to the lead singer). Heroically, The Pet Shop Boys (the actual Pet Shop Boys!) appeared to fill in the missing headline slot, chatting away to David Sedaris and Lynda Snell backstage in a hilarious celeb moment. Then there was the culmination of all things twee and middle-class in Ambridge, when Kirsty Allsopp appeared to open the annual village fete. With Olympic fever hanging over the town, Sir Bradley Wiggins helped out at the Sport Relief Rough and Tumble Challenge (incidentally, in true Archers style, Bradley had to witness Ian punching Rob at said event). The celeb appearances add to the strange reality of the show, existing as it does in a kind of Austen-esque ‘made-up but real’ village and province. Radio drama, as a form, also involves the listener a lot more in producing meaning than say, television soap operas do. For one, you have to imagine the events playing out in your head, and so there is always that extra level of interpretation involved. The snappy but daily appearance of the show also facilitates ongoing Twitter conversations, where users’ comments often provide vital feedback for the show’s producers, who care about what people want out of the drama. Listeners get involved even more directly by playing out the show’s storylines; there is, for example, a Twitter account for the campaign to save Ambridge from commercial development (see @SAVEAmbridge).
And I’m glad that The Archers gets more podcast downloads than the likes of Radio 1’s Scott Mills (cough, crap chart music, cough). It shows that sometimes, what people want is a quick-fix of juicy drama but also the escapism and emotional provocation it provides. The Archers is like an on-going collection of flash fictions, weaving together a rhizomatic assemblage of over 60 characters whose presence infects one another’s storylines and transforms our vision of the village through complex and engaging storylines. In our digital age, the short slice of drama that the show offers is perfect listening, and you can download the episodes as podcasts or wait for the 75-minute omnibus edition on Sundays. I think we are getting a bit of a rural revival lately, with the likes of Jack Thorne’s crime drama Glue fuelling this interest in the dramatic landscapes of the countryside. Glue, a somewhat slow-burning series, offers at least beautiful camera work and acclaimed representation of the Romani community, as well as everyday elements of farm-life – the early mornings, the milkings. Yes, there are elements of D. H. Lawrence style romanticising (the racy hay-bail sex scene, for instance) but there is also gritty reality, the criminal undertones of the local community. Where I’m from, the ‘Young Farmer’s Association’ was associated predominantly with Saturday night escapades of binge-drinking, Ceilidh dancing and alfresco lovemaking (albeit also bridge-playing and flower-arranging contests), so maybe all this racy rural drama isn’t entirely inaccurate. Either way, I hope I’ve persuaded you to give The Archers a go. It’s less than 15 minutes, after all.
Schillinger, Lisa, 2014. ‘“Hi, Folks.”: How a once-friendly, neighbourly word – “folks” – became a quiet sort of insult’ in Matter, Available at: <https://medium.com/matter/how-a-once-friendly-neighborly-word-folks-became-a-quiet-sort-of-insult-c54e05b6a069> [Accessed 19.10.14].