If you’re reading this, chances are you’re bored at work and have got your finger and thumb poised over the alt and tab keys, with your earphones in. Well, I was in a similar position a couple of years ago, when I discovered The Archers. I say ‘discovered’, as if the world’s longest-running radio soap is in any way an underground in-joke jamboree, but can there really be that many dedicated Archers listeners amongst young professionals? Probably not, is my guess. For a long time, the most notable occurrence in the 60-year-old soap was a gag-inducing shower scene between middle-aged bumpkins Sid and Jolene. But what can its posho farmer storylines possibly contribute to the modern world aside from a serious mistrust of anyone who knows the first thing about crop irrigation and the nesting habits of local birds of prey?
Well, very little. Getting into The Archers wasn’t something I approached lightly, in the same way you might deliberate over a change in breakfast cereal or crisp flavour. I needed several toe-dips before I was fully immersed in Ambridge’s slow-burn storylines and intricate web of characters. After a few episodes, I honestly thought that the narrative must have been in some sort of stasis before Joe Grundy was inevitably going to be discovered violating a cow in the sheds at Brookfield, but after you’ve become accustomed to the fact that very little actually happens The Archers starts to gently unfurl before you. Weeks can go past while only the barest of hints are dropped that someone might eventually be thrown off a quadbike or end up being artificially inseminated (admittedly it was a surprise to discover it was a human insemination, despite the myriad farming devices on hand that could achieve the same effect).
Phil Mitchell is yet to turn up offering to shag Lilian Bellamy in return for a rock of crack, but once you’re acquainted with its quirks The Archers is impossible to turn away from.
When the climaxes arrive, they are often actually rather harrowing and genuinely involving, a happy bi-product of the glacial pacing. The New Years’ bumper episode of 2010/11 was a great example, dubbed “SATTC” by the BBC, in that it relayed events that would “Shake Ambridge To The Core”. Carefully, across several months of gradual storyline unpacking, the audience is made aware that one or more characters is going to die – will it be thuddingly boring Helen Archer, rushed into an early labour with her sperm donor baby that her father Tony is dead against, on grounds of it being ‘not normal’? Or will it be Tony himself, driving maniacally across Borchester to get his daughter to hospital? Could it even be the baby, prompting the most inappropriate ‘I told you so!’ in the history of radio drama? In the end it was the well-loved toff-a-roonie Nigel Pargetter who rather unceremoniously toppled off the roof of his stately home while trying to remove a banner – you can listen to the genuinely bloodcurdling scream here.
And what a scream it was! The vocal talents of the cast is wildly varied, which is perhaps to be expected when there are so many characters, and the dialogue itself is regularly hilariously improbable (genuine insult thrown a few weeks back: “Sparrowhawks don’t hover like that, Kenton!” – what a dick!), but there is such an immense comfort to be drawn from being involved in the programme. It’s broadcasting as Lord Reith imagined, and is still genuinely educational and reflective of the modern countryside. Recent months have seen an outbreak of Yoni’s disease in one of the cattle herds, possible closure of the local pub and even a delightful introduction to beekeeping. True, Phil Mitchell is yet to turn up offering to shag Lilian Bellamy in return for a rock of crack, but once you’re acquainted with its quirks The Archers is impossible to turn away from.
The debates will roll on – exactly how annoying can Kathy Perks be? Why isn’t my Grandma like Jill Archer? And is Joe Grundy pissed or just mentally unstable? – but to truly appreciate The Archers you have to go at it full bore. Cancel your afternoon meeting, pop your earphones in and delve into the weekly omnibus. It might not set your pulse racing immediately, but in time you’ll come to find the goings-on of Ambridge as vital as anything on the box.
Everything you need to know about The Archers is here
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