Number 8 on the GB Hit Parade: The Archers!

No images today!  Instead, like any loyal Archers fan, you'll have to use the pictures in your head!

No images today! Instead, like any loyal Archers fan, you’ll have to use the pictures in your head!

I suppose it is a bit bizarre to be nostalgic about a group of people who are, really, just a bunch of constructs.  But far be it from me not to be a bit, well, bizarre.  Number eight on the ten things that put the ‘Great’ into Britain must be The Archers.  Now, my Yank friends are probably scratching their heads at this point, so the more interesting reaction will be from the Brits amongst my readership.  I expect at least half of you are saying, “Ah, yes!” while the other half are gagging.  But 7 o’clock in the evening will not be the same without the familiar strains of “Barwick Green” heralding the latest episode of the world’s longest running radio soap opera.

The Archers is a rural saga, set in the mythical West Midlands village of Ambridge, a lovely, traditional village, located on the banks of the River Am in the county of Borsetshire.   Ambridge has just about everything that makes a village wonderful:  old stone cottages set around the green, a lovely ancient church, a local stately home, and a village store that must, judging from the quantity and quality of goods on offer, give Waitrose (Yanks:  think Whole Foods) a run for its money.  Additionally, it is ringed by magnificent English rural countryside, with arable, livestock, and dairy farms prettily dotting the hills and dales of Borsetshire.  If you need more urban treats, such as a lovely little boutique or a night out clubbing, the county seat of Borchester and the lively cathedral city of Felpersham are not too far away and will provide.

But while the environs of Ambridge are idyllic, the lives of its denizens are far from it.  Life can be pretty steamy in the meadows as it turns out.  Of course, this was not the originators’ intention when they first began broadcasting The Archers.  In the post-war drive to modernise British agriculture, The Archers was a mighty arrow in the quiver of the government’s propaganda machine.  Characters became proponents of new, scientifically-based, and undoubtedly universally beneficial agrarian practices.  I imagine that the dialogue was electrifying, and probably went something like this:

Phil:  Hi, Tony!  My goodness, you are awash with bug bites!  And heavenly days!  Whatever happened to your barley fields?  I’ve seen more cover on the tail end of a bare-assed baboon!

Tony:  It’s those pesky locusts, Phil.  I can’t seem to get rid of the blasted varmints.

Phil:  Well, have you tried this new DDT?  It works a treat on the fields.  And if you rub it into the kids’ hair, it will see those nits right off, as sure as Bob’s your uncle!

Tony:  And Fanny’s your aunt, yark, yark!

Yet, despite the writing, the audience for the show grew, and with it, the interest in the personal lives of the Ambridgians.  For example, audience ratings soared when, one calamitous Sunday night, Phil Archer’s first wife Grace died in a terrible fire, trying to save her beloved horses from the conflagration.  I have been assured by those in the know that the fact that ITV was launching its new-fangled television channel that very same evening had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to broadcast Grace’s untimely end at that particular time.  It was just the right point in the narrative arc, you see.

Unsurprisingly, the show focuses primarily on the comings and goings of the Archers, an extended family of sturdy yeomen farmers who provide the stiffened upper lip to the face of the Ambridge body politic.  Patriarch Jack Archer (elder brother of Phil) established the family waaaaaaay before my time, although Peggy Perkins Archer Woolley, his hard-headed-businesswoman-with-a-heart-of-gold-wife (and then widow, and then wife of Jack Woolley), remains a vital link with the original cast of characters.  The same actress, June Spencer, has played Peggy since she first graced the Am’s fair shores in May of 1950, except for a brief stint.  Indeed, that is one of the many things that make The Archers so endearing:  actors frequently remain with their character from cradle to grave, allowing their alter-egos to develop distinct, mature voices.  Debbie Aldridge has been played by Tamsin Greig (star of stage and screen) since she was a wee lass, and Tamsin, bless her, still takes the time to stop by to see long-suffering mum Jenny and creepy step-dad Brian.  Sadly, it also means that we can be stuck with some pretty crap actors, such as the girl playing Pip Archer, for a loooooooooong time. (Let’s face it:  someone that bad at reading a line is unlikely to get a job elsewhere.  Oh, well—the good with the bad, and all that.)

But don’t let the sweetness and light of the countryside fool you into thinking that these are boring country bumpkins.  The three A’s of rural life (adultery, alcoholism, and arson) all figure heavily in the plots.  The aforementioned Jack Archer made Peggy’s life a misery through his addictions to alcohol and gambling.  And the show just gets spicier and spicier!  The first time I became aware of the show was when I was waiting in the car for some tailback (traffic jam) to resolve itself.  Listening in a desultory kind of way, I was roused from my stupor by the distinct sounds of a shower, a middle-aged male voice asking for the gel, and a female voice coyly asking where he would like her to put it.  Well!  This was interesting!  Turns out Sid Perks and paramour Jolene were having a bit of post-hanky-panky hygiene time, behind the backs of honest and loyal chump Kathy Perks and their lovely son Jamie.  But it all turns out all right in the end:  Sid and Jolene get happily married and run the local pub (The Bull—named after Sid, I guess), Jamie turns into a local cricket hero, and Kathy gets raped by a co-worker and then dumped by her boyfriend.  Heigh-ho, can’t have everything!  Besides, Sid does die of a heart attack eventually—just not when he’s busy satisfying the alluring Jolene.

So you can see, the script writers do not blink an eye when it comes to salacious story lines.  Similarly, they are not afraid of courting controversy, especially in the surprisingly contentious field of British agriculture.  Tom Archer was tried (but not convicted) for destroying Brian’s genetically modified crops, while Ruth Archer (Miss August in the 1992 Stockwomen of Tyneside calendar) valiantly, but futilely, battled Brian’s mega-dairy scheme.  Borchester Land, the local baddy corporation chaired by Brian, is frequently caught trying to destroy Ambridge’s agricultural heritage in any number of nefarious ways, generally relating to turning fields of wheat into bungalows, strip malls, and other eyesores.  And who could forget poor old Joe Grundy putting down his ferrets after being evicted from his small hold farm by—you guessed it—Borchester Land and Brian?  (Actually, that was before my time, but I’ll never forget the catch in Ratty’s voice when she told me about it.) I’m a bit curious about how and whether they’ll deal with this summer’s badger cull.  David Archer—dairy and beef farmer—will doubtlessly be cleaning the hunters’ guns for them, while his cousin Helen Archer—passionate but somewhat wet organic farmer—will be sheltering Mr. Brock as his sett is destroyed.  I’m not sure where Brian will be—probably holding the wallets for both the hunters and the badgers, if his past is any indication.

Ultimately, though, it is the characters who drive the passions of their listeners.  Get a group of Archers fans together, and you will doubtlessly hear passionate advocates for every character (except Pip, of course).  To the true Archers fan, the characters are actually real, and their passions have instigated an entire Ambridge-related industry:  websites, blogs, mugs, aprons, and cookbooks, to name just a few.  And it’s interesting to see who loves which character.  Joe Grundy, professional ne’er-do-well whose schemes for avoiding work invariably blow up in his face, is especially beloved of Ratty’s husband—the least work shy man I know.  My personal favourite is Lillian Bellamy, Brian’s louche sister-in-law who is gifted with the most glorious gin-soaked laugh on God’s green earth.  Listening to her purr as she wraps her lover Matt (aka ‘Tiger’) around her well-manicured little finger is one of life’s real pleasures.  She’s on a bit of a downer now, since her illicit lover, Paul, who was Matt’s recently discovered half-brother, died of a heart attack after one of Matt’s heavies (Matt has form, you see) squeezed him by his testicles and threatened to rough up his little granddaughter if he didn’t quit sniffing around Lillian.  I didn’t feel too bad about Paul’s passing—it turns out he also stalked his ex-wife and tried to keep his adult children from attending her second wedding by threatening to cut them out of his will—but I did feel terribly sorry for Lillian, who was genuinely heart-broken.  Lillian’s grief was terrifically portrayed by Sunny Ormand, who doesn’t seem to act so much as channel Lillian.  Also, I’m in awe of Lillian’s stamina, as she has the energy to keep two men on the go (and something tells me that Tiger is no slouch under the duvet), run a business, and regularly go riding on Spearmint, her niece’s horse.  All at the age of 66!  She’s quite a role model, let me tell you!

Unlike my other passions, however, I don’t need to leave The Archers behind.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology—and the generosity of the BBC—I’ll be able to ‘listen again’ to the adventures of my bucolic buddies.  At seven o’clock, I’ll turn on my computer and start preparing supper, and I’ll hear, once again, those magical harbingers of my favourite rural epic:  Dum de dum de dum de dum, dum de dum de dum dum.

May I suggest you do the same?

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