Friday, 18 December 2015

Down & Out in Ambridge

The Archers tackles difficult issues. Will the Grundys find somewhere to live? Will Helen escape from her increasingly controlling husband? Thank heavens it also delivers a generous sprinkling of knockabout comedy. Enter Lynda and the Calendar Girls.

Written by Beth Miller
Cristmas is coming and, on The Archers, the geese are getting fat. Quite literally, as the newly arrived Fairbrother brothers are doing well with their geese-rearing business. Despite not knowing one end of a fowl from the other, they are wiping the fl oor with Eddie Grundy’s traditional turkeys. Eddie has not taken this well. He’s been haranguing the Fairbrotherbrothers every chance he gets, and has even gone so far as to set up a turkey website (it’s always a treat when an Ambridge character attempts to engage with technology). But the turkeys just aren’t shifting. This is not the Grundys’ year. Not only were they flooded out of their home, and realised too late that they hadn’t paid the insurance premiums, but for a final straw, evil landlady Hazel Woolley (boo!) swept in, swishing her black cape, to hand them an eviction notice. We regular listeners knew months ago that the Grundys would not be returning to Keeper’s Cottage after the flood renovations; no way would Hazel put in granite worktops for the likes of them. Eddie and Clarrie are facing the prospect of being homeless at Christmas, perhaps even having to put poor old Joe in a care home. The Archers’ storylines are often extremely good at tapping into the zeitgeist, and this one, which covers the exorbitant cost of renting, the fear of being evicted, and the difficulty in caring for elderly relatives at home, has struck a chord with a large number of listeners.

archers-590-7David and Ruth Archer could soon be separated

We like it when The Archers is realistic, but do the scriptwriters sometimes go too far? I am of course thinking of Helen and Rob’s increasingly dark marriage. Helen, with her back catalogue of eating disorders and dodgy relationships, has never been the most stable person in Borsetshire. Rob seemed like the answer to her prayers, but now her mental health is unravelling before our appalled ears. He creepily undermines her at every turn, so cleverly that it appears to the outside world that he has only her best interests at heart. Whenever she questions his judgement, he becomes so coldly, terrifyingly furious that she hastily backs down, as would any of us. She has begun to accept his version of reality, and now regularly thanks him for ‘not getting angry with me’. The various online groups and forums which discuss The Archers in forensic detail are full of heartbreaking stories from women who have managed to escape the clutches of a Rob. Many say that the scenes are so painfully accurate, they can’t bear to tune in any longer. I’m sure most of us hope that this storyline wraps up by Christmas, rather than lingering on as it doubtless would in real life.

archers-590-2Helen and Rob’s relationship grows darker

Sometimes The Archers is realistic right up until the moment when it suddenly is not. The programme has mostly dealt well with Ruth Archer’s complex emotions following the death of her mother (or ‘me mutha’ as she would say). We see how conflicted she is by the invasive presence of her mother- in-law, Jill, who is so hale at 85 that she looks set for another 20 years of cake-making. Ruth has decided she needs to get away for a while, a not-uncommon wish after a bereavement that we can all understand. Where will she go to recuperate? Scarborough, perhaps? The south of France, at a push? Oh. She’s jetting off to New Zealand, and with a jagged sound of a needle being dragged across an oldfashioned LP, the whole edifi ce comes crashing down. New Zealand?! Wherever did that come from?

archers-590-3Will Eddie Grundy be homeless by Christmas?

When The Archers does get something just right, it resonates far beyond its 12 minutes of air-time. When Jack Woolley was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, for instance, we were there with his wife Peggy, every step of the way, as the storyline played out in real time, allowing us to witness Jack’s gradual decline and Peggy’s deep reserves of love and stoicism. I still think of it sometimes now, several years later. Though maybe I do need to get out more.

archers-590-6Jack Woolley succumbed to Alzheimer’s

Mostly, of course, The Archers is not realistic at all, which is a relief to those of us who, like Ruth, long for a little escapism. At Christmas time in particular, we need a bit of fun, and Lynda Snell’s implausible production of Calendar Girls will do the job nicely. Listening to her cajoling her hapless cast brings to mind some of the memorable village plays that longterm listeners have endured, I mean enjoyed. Who can forget 1996’s production of Cinderella, when Lynda was late, and her arch-rival Larry Lovell decided to perform her role as well as his own? How we laughed when Lynda finally arrived and there were two Fairy Godmothers battling it out on stage (one with a charming baritone and five-o’clock shadow, the other attempting to supplant Lynda in the aff ections of Ambridge).

archers-590-5Lynda Snell is the am-dram queen of Ambridge

Or what about the 2006 production of Snow White And The Seven (Slightly Taller Than Average) Dwarves, in which Joe Grundy accidentally set his dwarf beard alight, and had to be extinguished by Brian Aldridge? May there be many more such happy and unlikely days to be heard in Ambridge. Once the Grundys have found a home, that is, and Rob’s been jailed, and the hunky Fairbrothers have lost their shirts. Literally, perhaps. If that’s not too unrealistic a hope.

Beth Miller is the author of For The Love Of The Archers: An Unofficial Companion, published by Summersdale, priced £9.99:

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