THE ARCHERS: LOVE IT OR LOATHE IT?
It’s radio Marmite: millions are devotees, but a proud few can’t stand it. Two of our critics wade into the biggest debate on the wireless…
For millions of Britons, Ambridge goings-on are radio gold. But recently presenter Richard Bacon said the unthinkable: that he hated The Archers, branding it 'boring' and 'aimless'. But is he right? We asked two writers with very different views to go head to head in the Battle of Ambridge.
Kat Brown: 'The Archers is cream tea for the soul'
'As a Hampshire teenager I had no interest in "an everyday story of country folk". For me, life at that time already consisted of quite enough horses and unrelenting boredom. No, it was at university that I finally got The Archers, when über-farmer Brian Aldridge was having an affair with Siobhan, the sexy Irish translator.
The intrigue was electrifying, but the comforting wash of Nothing Really Happening for an hour every Sunday was also the perfect foil to the stress of exams.
'Hating The Archers is like hating the sea, like hating Sunday mornings. I luxuriate in the omnibus edition (now an hour and a quarter long) as a valuable addition to breakfast. In fact, the only times I go off it a little are when the writing room gets infected with outbreaks of plot (viz: poor Nigel Pargetter, sacrificed on the rooftop last year for the 60th anniversary). Usually, it's just so comforting to know all that time can go by with little more happening than a llama making a bid for freedom.
'Like ivy, the programme creeps up on you. A few weeks of casual listening and you're hooked on ecofarming, sheep dip and milking in a way you never thought possible. Even on holiday in Spain, my friends and I would sit in the car with a phone hooked up to the speakers, listening to that day's episode and arguing wildly about it afterwards, while our boyfriends sulked and, inevitably, eventually succumbed themselves.
'Archers listeners don't ever really stop listening. It's too comforting, too ridiculous, real without being realistic. For obvious watershed reasons, nobody swears yet all of human life is here: petty-mindedness, family and friendship, the nightmares of running your own business in a struggling fi nancial climate; the hierarchy of the country village, ghastly social climbers and the desperation of the young to find something more interesting to do than go for yet another walk.
'Not liking the programme is more of a judgement than a feeling, the same opinionated jacket people throw on when they want to rail against the millions who do.
'Of course, apart from the wonderfully gin-soaked Lilian, nobody really likes the Archers family themselves. But they recognise them. Part of the joy is in complaining about an extended family that is frequently worse than your own. However much we grind our teeth at our own relatives, it's reassuring to know that nobody could be as appalling as Tom or Helen Archer. For here the writers have turned irritation into high art. I like to imagine they have in the offi ce a Lazy Susan with each character's name on, which they spin periodically to decide who to make even more hideous and thus more discussable. They turn the screw with such sadistic precision that just when you can't take any more, a particularly venomous character will get their comeuppance or retire for a few weeks.
'You grow to feel deep affection for these people, who exist only in your mind. The children's acting isn't great – Brian and Siobhan's love child is popularly known as Ruairi the Irish Robot – but the adults bring their roles to life perfectly. Free from the television screen, there's none of the "Look, Mum, I'm going for a BAFTA!" that glints in so many soap actors' eyes, just a cheerful consistency as comforting as a parent. 'I don't listen to experience extreme farming or Emmerdalian levels of intrigue. I don't want Mad Men with cows. I love The Archers precisely because it babbles along like a merry little stream of life, a community of people I care about but am quite happy to keep at arm's length, unless I'm complaining about them with my father or my friends, or on Twitter.
'Yoga for the ears, a cream tea for the soul. God bless Ambridge and all who sail in her. Oh, except for Tom Archer: dear Beeb writers, you can bump him off whenever you like.'
Louis Barfe: 'The Archers is hammy and heavy handed'
'If HM Bateman were still alive, what I am about to admit would make me an ideal subject for one of his cartoons. I am a radio critic who can't stand The Archers. Well, maybe "can't stand" is a bit strong. I've just never seen the point of it, although I appreciate that I'm in a minority of regular Radio 4 listeners. Is it just me, Richard Bacon and Terry Wogan, the latter having never forgiven The Archers for ousting Dick Barton way back in the 1950s?
'No, it's them. That lot in Birmingham who make that programme about that lot in Ambridge. I've tried to like it but to no avail. It's years since I braved a full episode, but I catch a lot of odds and ends if I forget to switch stations at 2pm or arrive early for Front Row. All I hear reinforces my antipathy. It's partially irrational, but I can pinpoint aspects that really tick me off.
'Firstly, the acting is so mannered, as if the performers have been told to forget everything taught in drama schools since the 1950s. Not that they're bad actors. Some of them are wonderful. In other things. The presence of Tamsin Greig in anything is good enough for me, but even her sporadic appearances (as Debbie Aldridge) aren't enough to lure me in.
'Secondly, it deals with issues in a manner so heavy handed that it makes EastEnders seem subtle. The snippets I've caught recently all seemed to be about selling farm produce online and bumping yourself up the search-engine listings. Was this plotline there to educate listeners in the realities of modern technology and agribusiness? Whatever, despite the writers' and producers' best efforts, I suspect strongly that a sizeable proportion of the audience still thinks that Google rankings are a swimmers' eyewear chart.
'Thirdly, it attracts a level of fanaticism that, quite frankly, scares me. I know otherwise intelligent, rational people who, only halfjokingly, refuse to acknowledge that the series is anything other than a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
'On the plus side, it's superbly produced. It sounds great (particularly in stereo), and I always come away impressed by the sound effects and the way realistic room ambience and farmyard atmosphere has been created in a radio studio next to a flyover in Brum. However, Broadway veterans always say nobody comes away from a hit musical whistling the scenery, which is roughly what I'm doing by praising The Archers' technical excellence.
'Presenter Richard Bacon has recently courted controversy by calling the show "boring" and "aimless" (you'll have to believe me when I say this article was commissioned before he said anything about the Borsetshire folk), but I don't think that's fair. At times, The Archers has been as sensationalist as any Emmerdale plane crash or Brookside siege. Never forget that Grace Archer was killed off on the opening night of ITV in order to keep the BBC, successfully, on the front pages of the next day's newspapers. As for Bacon's assertion that some pretend to like it to feel superior... what kind of damaged individual would you have to be? Anyway, I have some choice words to describe what I think of his Radio 5 Live phone-in show, which I will share in my The Lady radio column soon.
'Nonetheless, I remain open to the possibility that one day The Archers and I will suddenly click, and I'm open to discussion, but it's not going to be an easy sell. I still chortle with malicious glee at the episode of Hancock, where Tony loses his job as the Walter Gabriel-type character on a radio series called The Bowmans.
'Reinstated by popular acclaim, Hancock makes one condition of his return. That the entire cast apart from him should disappear down a disused mine shaft. If that were replicated on The Archers, I'd listen – and I bet the sound effects would be gorgeous.'
Love it or loathe it? Write to us or join the debate at www.lady.co.uk
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