BBC Radio 4’s 15-minute slice of life from the fictional village of Ambridge is nothing short of an institution and for it to have to stopped recording and start airing old episodes back in May, during the first lockdown, was nothing short of shocking.
It’s been all hands on deck to kickstart (firstly via a series of widely unpopular monologues) the socially distanced recording of new episodes as listeners wait for the 70th anniversary special, episode number 19,343 to be precise, to be aired on New Year’s Day.
Let’s face facts. The world’s longest-running soap is for many the radio equivalent of Marmite. The tum-te-tum-te-tum-te-tum of the theme tune ignites strong (love or hate) emotions.
For this listener, it’s a romance that began about 15 years ago with a falling out of love with another soap. The Husband has always enjoyed television’s Emmerdale, chuckling with laughter at the Dingle family’s exploits, but after the “Farm” was dropped and the storylines became harder to believe it lost its appeal and we switched to separate rooms... Well, Him in one room watching the gogglebox and me in another, usually the kitchen, tuning the radio in.
For me, the appeal was that The Archers is still quintessentially rural, with many plots centred on the farmsteads of Ambridge. The Archer clan of Brookfield, well-heeled (at the time) Brian Aldridge of Home Farm and Pat and Tony Archer’s organic Bridge Farm. In spite of this rustic charm, it would be wrong to pretend that there haven’t been hard-hitting storylines over the years.
A coercive control court case, young mother Nic Grundy’s death from sepsis, Jack Woolley’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and a gas explosion entwined in modern-day slavery, to name just a few. But somehow they creep up and slowly unfold, rather than the kind of wham-bang disasters that seem to happen in television soaps.
Another bonus is that 15 minutes, as opposed to the half hour of television rivals, is infinitely easier to obtain. Back in the day, when the children were young, the whole nightly routine centred on getting them bathed, bed and story read before “Mummy’s special time” at 7pm.
Their father also knew that there was no point enquiring about food until quarter-past seven. Over the years the nightly 7pm slot became harder to achieve, so a switch was made to the Sunday morning omnibus edition. Now, with one away at university and the other having just passed his driving test, the early evening slice of special listening time might once again become a possibility.
Apparently lots of people who once rolled their eyes at their families for their dedication to life in the county of Borsetshire find themselves following in their footsteps in later life. Times like leaving home, living abroad and having a family are key triggers for finding the radio’s “on” switch; giving a feeling of continuity and that link with times gone by.
Listening to The Archers isn’t a high- maintenance relationship. Go away on holiday for a week or so and it’s no big deal. Unlike today’s fast-moving television soaps and dramas, there’s no need to record missed episodes. It’s all so familiar that it takes only a bit of Susan Carter’s gossip in the shop or Eddie Grundy chewing the fat over a pint in the Bull (thank goodness Lilian backtracked on the name change) and us listeners are back up to speed.
Personal favourites are “daaarling” Lilian Bellamy, local squire type Oliver Sterling and his unlikely rapport with both the Grundy family and single mother Tracy Horrobin. Lynda Snell in Christmas production mode was insufferable but touching scenes during her recovery from the hotel explosion have brought about a complete rethink. She’s comedy genius. Jill Archer and her baking are still irritating, as is newly revealed alcoholic Alice Carter and moaning Minnie cheesemaker Helen, to name just a few.
So, what can we expect during the 70th anniversary edition? Possibly a culmination to the modern-day slavery storyline. In true Archers fashion, we have very slowly got to know builder Philip Moss and listened on as he wooed and just recently wed unlucky-in-love spinster of the Ambridge parish Kirsty.
Unbeknown to her, the lads at his builder’s yard have been picked up off the streets and kept as unpaid slaves. He’s just last week sold them on, like livestock, and it’s weighing heavily on son Gavin’s mind. Philip needs his comeuppance but it would be unbearable to hear once-jilted Kirsty’s world fall apart again. Whatever happens, in the oft-spoken words of Lynda Snell, the show must go on...
Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.
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