Loved and hated in equal measure, his very presence in tough times is soothing and calming.
BBC Radio 4’s serial drama ‘The Archers’ turned 70 on New Year’s Day – with a satisfying plot twist.
For the crimes of modern slavery perpetrated not by her but by her new husband, cruel, manipulating contractor Philip Moss, the long-suffering, virtuous Kirsty Miller was convicted. The story is an example of what is especially good about soap opera, the longest running in the world: illuminating an urgent social problem of the day by carrying out its real-time implications.
Indeed, as listeners spend 12 minutes a day listening to the comings and goings, the heartbreaks and scandals, the dramas and comedies of a fictitious village called Ambridge, time itself is perhaps the most critical aspect of’ The Archers.’
In a Radio 4 documentary marking the drama’s birthday, social history author David Kynaston elegantly traced how the show tracked social change in rural England. Even the 1960s took place, to a degree, in Ambridge, due to the controversy surrounding Jennifer Archer’s illegitimate baby in 1967. Adam, now a married, gay farmer and father of a toddler through a surrogate mother, is that illegitimate infant – a family constellation unimaginable when he was born. “Kynaston also noted that “The Archers” has a tradition of solid, capable women: in the 1950s, when her husband was too drunk and inexperienced to do it himself, Peggy Archer, played by 101-year-old June Spencer since 1951, defied convention and took charge of the village bar. Also Jennifer, who ultimately got married with new money and is not necessarily a career woman, is described by the writers with remarkable depth and sensitivity: she has vulnerabilities and layers and a lot of inner grit.
Pat Archer, an advocate of organic farming, enrolled in a women’s studies course in the early 1980s, becoming the first feminist in the series.
She also moved family papers from the Express to the Guardian, which she also reads, no doubt.
Does Ambridge represent English country life accurately? If you embrace the many dramaturgical conventions that get in the way of verisimilitude, maybe – (for example, the absence of swearing, politics, social media, discussions of television or the voices of children under 18). What is real, however, is that the significant storylines that take place are admirably well researched against the backdrop of milking and baking cakes. In 2016, shortly after this form of domestic violence was criminalized in England and Wales, the most memorable recent example was the masterful “coercive control” storyline involving Helen Archer and her husband Rob Titchener, which reached its violent climax. The type of The Archers lent itself especially well to the exploration of this subtle crime – listeners listened to Rob’s gradual exploitation and gaslighting of his wife in real time.
It did almost as well to raise awareness of this crime among the show’s 5 million viewers – perhaps much more than any legal text.
For most viewers, before “The Archers.” there was never a moment.
For Middle England, this is the unavoidable ambient soundtrack.
In times of need, its mere existence relieves and comforts.
May it continue to spit out its gentle, kind-hearted stories as long as there is a Middle England to hear it.