What do I have in common with the comic actor, Stephen Fry, who I sense is ideologically opposed to a lot of the things I particularly care about? Answer: we are both Archers fans! For those who don’t know, “The Archers” is a long running radio series, billed as “an everyday story of country folk”. Just like supporters of one or other football team, I find when I meet a fellow Archers fan often a bond forms right away, even when we don’t have much else in common, with plenty of scope for conversation, that those who aren’t fans won’t understand. When a friend told me he was rebuked for having the temerity to say, in a “what is community” brainstorming session, that him being an Arsenal fan was every much being part of a community as living in the same road as someone else, I told him that I entirely agreed with him – that’s how I feel about the Archers!
I remember going away to a youth camp, aged 15 and, to my surprise, one of my peers shared that he often listened to the Archers. I can’t remember precisely how and when I became a regular listener to the program myself but I think it was when I was in my early twenties, out of pure fascination, and 40 years on I am still hooked. Often I try to put myself in the characters shoes and imagine what it is like to live in the fictional village of Ambridge in Borsetshire where most of the plot takes place. Except for a couple of short breaks, I have tried to follow all the episodes of this Radio 4 soap that is broadcast just after 7pm on weekdays and Sundays, with the programs being repeated the next day, with a Sunday omnibus edition which, because it clashes with church attendance, I hardly ever get to listen to. For the last few years, I have been able to catch up with episodes I miss on BBC iPlayer, although I still tell friends not to call me between 7 and 7.15 as I will likely be checking up on the latest goings on in Ambridge.
Over the years, I have followed many of soap operas that have featured and do feature on radio, but mostly TV, but usually only as a one-off or for short periods. But ask me about the current story lines for more popular soaps, such as “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street”, and I wouldn’t have a clue. Not so with the Archers! Will Rob Tichener be finally exposed as a control freak with a dark secret? Will the brash young upstart Charlie, having just taken over the reins of Borchester Land, get his come comeuppance? How will Tom be, if and when he returns to Ambridge following the ditching of his would-be bride at the altar? Will Jennifer’s new super dooper kitchen ever get finished in the way she hoped? Will Jolene, the Bull’s landlady, daughter, Fallon, and that nice, dishy PC Burns become an item? As those who follow the show will know, such questions are often intertwined with some of the current story lines. As for the characters that dip in and out of episodes over many years, one wonders what is in store for them? Over the years, there have been many questions and stories that have unraveled that have kept us on tenterhooks and ensured that fans like me switched on to further episodes, waiting to see what does eventually transpire.
If you ask me what is it that makes me an Archers follower, I would be hard pressed to give good reasons. While the idea of a rural village setting is appealing, life in the Archers’ world is far from idyllic and, unlike with “the Waltons”, a US TV show I followed for a while many years back, there sometimes is no obvious underlying moral narrative or sense that there will be a just and right outcome. While there are tragedies and disappointments, the characters seem to pull through in the end. I like to think the good and the bad guys get their just deserts and, while that often is the case, frustratingly that is not always so. When one ex-Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, one of the many unlikely Archers fans I keep coming across throughout my life, suggested tongue-in-cheek renaming the show “the Grundys and their oppressors” (the Grundys along with Archers being the most prominent families in this show), he had a point for there has been insufficient evidence of this often downtrodden family demonstrating how the underdogs will eventually come good and on top in the end. Even so, both families these days experience more then their fair share of ups and downs, and it is nice to know despite some conflicts they, in the main, get on with each other. When a few years ago there was some reaction against the long time editor, Vanessa Winterburn, for a suspected feminist plot to portray many of the female characters as strong and determined and the male characters as wimps and baddies (and it seems it is the gay ones that are the most rounded), I felt there may have been a point.
If anything, all the above may be good reasons for me NOT wanting to take an interest in the show. Yet interested I am and have been for well over half my life. When comparing with other soaps, I find the characters and situations more real and with which I can better identify, in the Archers compared with elsewhere. Some of the fun is imagining how I might react and second guessing the outcomes of the various plots. Some of the story lines are quite close to home, such as Daryl’s downward spiral in becoming homeless etc. or Jack’s onset of Alzeihmers or Shula’s dismay at son Daniel’s decision to join the army. Some stories are just funny like shenanigans around the flower and produce show, the twists and turns of one of Linda’s famous village hall productions, the subject of the next item of gossip, likely orchestrated by Susan, or the latest Grundy scam.
I dare say if, hypothetically, I were invited to appear on Mastermind, my specialist chosen subject could well be “the Archers”, and I would gladly swot up on the history in order to remedy deficiencies in my fading memory of what had gone on, having followed with much interest the fortunes of its various characters and the various story lines getting on for forty years. But remember, if you do want to call me between 7 and 7.15 this evening, unless duty beckons me elsewhere, then DON’T, for I may well be listening to the Archers.