Until the pandemic came along, The Archers seemed indestructible. Nearly 70 years old, Radio 4’s everyday story of country folk is the world’s longest-running drama, and still draws several million listeners every week.
At any rate, it used to. Whether it will have such a large and happy audience when Covid-19 finally departs our shores may be doubted. Though no official figures are yet available, once-faithful fans are said to be deserting in droves.
According to a recent edition of Radio 4’s Feedback programme, comments about the soap opera have been overwhelmingly negative. I stopped listening to it weeks ago. So has my wife. Mention The Archers to any erstwhile aficionado, and there will probably be a great deal of rolling of eyes and shaking of heads.
Pictured: Tim Bentinck and Felicity Finch as David and Ruth Archer. Though no official figures are yet available, once-faithful fans are said to be deserting in droves.
Actor Timothy Bentinck crouched under his stairs at home with a microphone to record the latest episode of The Archers
Even a recent editor of the drama has turned against it. Sean O’Connor, who edited it from 2013 until 2016, says he can no longer bear the goings-on in the fictional village of his beloved Ambridge. ‘I’ve switched off,’ he says. ‘I can’t listen to it.’
Now, it is perfectly true that we Archers devotees are perennially apt to grumble about new characters, unlikely plot twists, and other failings. We love to criticise it — and go on listening. But this time our despair runs deep.
What has happened is that, in response to the pandemic, the programme has ditched normal drama — you know, where one character addresses another, and he or she answers back — in favour of monologues of almost inconceivable dreariness.
The reasoning of clever clogs at the BBC was that, as it was no longer possible to get actors safely together in a studio (note that many of the cast are elderly, with June Spencer who plays Peggy Woolley clocking in at 101), they should operate from home.
Fair enough. But whereas other radio and television shows have contrived to maintain some interaction through the imaginative use of technological wizardry, the brainboxes behind The Archers plumped for the device of monologues.
You can imagine the scene. Some bright spark may have come up with the example of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, where characters would speak engagingly and at length about their interior lives. Why not try the same thing on The Archers?
I can think of at least two answers. One is that Mr Bennett is a near genius who has taken years to perfect his craft. Another is that The Archers is a rough-and- ready drama whose characters do not necessarily have very interesting or developed interior lives.
An acquaintance who listens to the soap as she works at home puts it very well. She says that whereas with a moderate suspension of disbelief it was previously possible to accept that the characters were real people inhabiting Ambridge, now she can only think of actors spouting their dull lines alone in their bedrooms.
They are doing their best in trying circumstances, of course, and deserve full marks for pluck. The truth is that they have been set an impossible task by the misguided men and women in grey suits.
The Archers is a rough-and- ready drama whose characters do not necessarily have very interesting or developed interior lives
As I say, I gave up listening in late May, soon after the programme adopted its new format. But in service to my journalistic calling, I have forced myself to turn on the radio several times over the past week. Reader, it was an ordeal.
One recent storyline concerned a disputatious online quiz. First we had an account of it from the nosey Susan Carter (wife of long- suffering pig-man Neil) who now somewhat incredibly hosts a programme on Radio Borsetshire.
Then her feisty sister Tracy Horrobin, with whom she has fallen out, gave her version of the same uninteresting occasion. Finally, young Freddie Pargetter offered his own lengthy report of what sounds the world’s most uneventful quiz.
Sounds fascinating? Then please compare the self-obsessed soliloquy of fiftysomething Elizabeth Pargetter (mother of aforementioned Freddie) about an online dating encounter with a man who turns out to be a bore. Not nearly as boring as Elizabeth banging on about it.
One noteworthy aspect of the monologues is that characters are made to think thoughts that are far darker than their actions in that long-forgotten Ambridge where people actually spoke to one another. Thus the normally sunny Ed Grundy moans to himself about his friend Jazzer and his brother Will.
Enough. There are doubtless a handful of loyal fans who would continue to adore The Archers if it were broadcast in Serbo-Croat, but I believe I may speak for many listeners when I say that, my duty done, I can’t listen to another word of the programme unless normal service is restored.
The tragedy is that it need not have been like this. Guests on the BBC1 panel show Have I Got News For You appear from home, while ITV’s soap opera Emmerdale has socially distanced scenes.
Why weren’t the programme’s makers more imaginative? After all, the London Philharmonic Orchestra recently performed online with numerous musicians playing individually from their own homes, synchronised perfectly. That was surely a far greater technical challenge that linking up a few actors.
This newspaper, let it be known, has for the past three-and-a-half months been written, edited and laid out nightly by hundreds of journalists working separately in their homes. Why can’t The Archers accomplish a seemingly much less onerous task?
What scope there would have been for the show to reflect some of the sombre realities of Covid-19! If the purpose of a soap is to hold up a mirror to nature, here was an opportunity to dramatise the pandemic’s human consequences.
As it is, the characters have maundered on endlessly about themselves. The producers even had the nerve to jazz up the theme tune as they embarked on their mission to eviscerate the programme.
Does the weakening and conceivable demise of The Archers matter very much? Not perhaps in the great scheme of things, with so many lives lost, livelihoods threatened, companies destroyed and futures blighted.
But the programme is nonetheless a jewel in the BBC’s crown. It has been around for longer than most of us can remember — entertaining tens of millions of people over the years, and giving enjoyment to succeeding generations.
It’s a peculiarly British institution. I say that because, alth-ough Ambridge is situated in the English countryside, it is crammed with representatives of every corner of the kingdom — Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The vicar is even married to a Hindu.
The Archers is not so much a tale of everyday country folk as an attempt to tell a story about a village that may not be entirely plausible but contains a wide variety of characters to whom many of us can relate.
Will The Archers be another victim of the pandemic? If it is, it won’t be because it was starved of cash. Licence payers’ money has been rolling in.
No, with more imagination and some enterprise, the BBC could have defended and strengthened its venerable soap opera. Instead of which, its most famous radio programme has been dealt what could turn out to be a fatal blow.