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Friday 26 December 2014

The Archers—Is It "Essential" Any More?

Stormclouds over Ambridge?
The BBC are having a laugh (or "'avin a larf", to put it in language they'll understand) with their long-running Radio 4 Programme The Archers.  Nobody expects TA to be about country "folk" any more, but it could at least bear some resemblance to life in the country. Instead, it's degenerating into an easy way to keep the BBC the subject of its own headlines.

I've written before about how my family, and loads of other people I know, were once devoted daily listeners but have now lost the habit. You can read more about it here and here. Times and tastes change, but that can't explain the growth in complaints from TA's wider audience on the programme's dedicated social networks, and heard on radio programmes such as Feedback.

There are still priceless moments in The Archers. Emma’s great line about apologising to an elf made me laugh this week—what on earth had George done?—but they're far fewer these days. Jennifer screeching at the airport made me want to scream, too, but it was believable. Kate is every inch her mother's daughter, so I could understand the veganism and the yoga (although with two (?) children and a hunky-sounding husband back home in South Africa, I'm amazed the edges haven't been knocked off Kate's self-absorption).  The scenes around the Bridge Farm tree were too schmaltzy for my liking, but hey, it's Christmas...

The Archers' old subtitle was "An Everyday Story Of Country Folk". That doesn't sound right these days, so the programme's Facebook page now has the subtitle Essential drama from the heart of the country. Bad news, BBC. It stopped being essential for me several years ago. I only dip in and out of The Archers these days, to see if it's improved.

I miss my old habit, so this week I made the effort and listened to every episode to see if calm and escapism has returned. Sadly, The Archers is still on a downward slope towards becoming Eastenders-on-Am. To deconstruct the BBC's own description, The Archers now has far too much drama (both broadcast, and behind the scenes), and not enough country for me.

The main problems I have with the programme centre around changes of personality, odd voices, and poor research.

Adam and Charlie are the perfect example of the creeping Eastenderization of Ambridge. Adam is in an established relationship.  Not every couple should expect to be put under stress, simply because the editor decides it's their turn to be tempted into adultery. In any case, like many of the new characters, Charlie is quite unlikeable. Would you fancy him? Or Stalker Harrison, for that matter?

The Roy-Hayley-Elizabeth roundabout shows up the ridiculousness of recent story lines.  Dull jobsworth Roy & snooty Elizabeth worked together for many years without the slightest flicker of attraction. Then overnight, Roy persuaded Elizabeth to go camping, and indulge in a torrid affair while simultaneously arranging a wildly successful festival in a matter of weeks. Roy had always been a good father to his girls, yet during this abrupt character-change he treated them as an irritating detail— much in same way the scriptwriters treat us. Look at the way Pat and Tony tracked down their long-lost grandson, Rich. The boy's mother Sharon was never the sort to miss a trick so why she never spilled the beans about Rich years ago escaped me, until Rich moved into Ambridge. Then I discovered the awful draining influence the place has on intellect. Sharon only wanted to save her son.When he lived with his mother and her partner, Rich was a natural cricketer, a model student, mad about science, predicted to get straight As, and keen to become an ecologist, IIRC.  By running away to Ambridge, he shed 100 IQ points, all his ambition, and his birth name. He's now called Johnny. If I was Rich/Johnny's mother, I'd have launched a rescue mission straight away. Bridge Farm is no place for any sane person. The boy's natural father was squashed by a tractor, Ecoli stalked the dairy, Tony's bull went berserk...the place must stand on the land Health and Safety forgot (apart from that visit by Johnny's painfully wooden tutor). 

Why does the small son of a Grundy (I can't remember which one, and to be frank, I no longer care) and Emma Carter speak with the perfect received pronunciation of the child of a BBC employee? Could it be there's a bit of a theme going on, given that the established part of Tom Archer was recast for no apparent reason, so soon after David Troughton took over the part of Tom's father, Tony? When challenged to rearrange the sentence pro quo quid, the BBC will only say they want actors with dramatic training. When the new Pip has such trouble finding her accent (and octave?), maybe they should be scrutinising their directors, too. 

Sensitively handled, the birth of a baby with Down's Syndrome could have been a great way to educate listeners about the subject. It would also have highlighted more general rural problems such as having to travel miles to attend ante-natal appointments, wait days for appointments with a doctor or difficulties with  transport to hospital. Instead, baby Bethany disappeared under the radar almost as soon as she was born. She and her parents are supposedly moving away to Birmingham, with the feeble excuse there are no facilities at the village school. I assumed inclusion was the law. It's a fact that several children with (sometimes severe) learning difficulties have attended our village school. The Archers' team could have explored the general ignorance around this subject, and publicised the help available, instead of dropping it when it got too difficult.

Expecting us to believe David and Ruth Archer will move from Ambridge to Prudhoe is beyond ridiculous, too. Neither of them seems sure why they're going, and the whole business has been treated as though buying and selling farms is the same as buying ordinary houses. With plunging milk prices, David and Ruth must be epically stupid to try and set up a new dairy enterprise where there's no existing infrastructure, especially as Ruth was crying over a domestic utility bill not long ago. Surely they'd at least wait and see what compensation they'd get from the proposed road scheme before accepting a verbal agreement for a suspiciously large sum on a place which must be subject to a planning blight. In any case, why Ruth wants to disrupt her whole family and business for the sake of a parent she never normally mentions, or visits, and admitted she was "bored" by caring for, is madness. 

I could go on, and on (and on), but I'll leave you with a Christmas-themed thought. If The Archers is intended to be "essential drama from the heart of the country",  they should mine the rich veins of inspiration around the vicar of Ambridge. He could be driven to desperation over his dwindling, ageing congregations, the (realistic) raising of funds, or theft from the several churches he's expected to run, or attacks on the clergy. Instead, Rev Franks was able to book a cathedral choir (not just any old choir, mind!) for the village carol service, only weeks before Christmas.

I suggest The Archers team concentrate on getting it right and realistic in 2015, not dumber and more dramatic. What New Year's Resolution would you suggest for them?

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