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Sunday 9 January 2011

Aping EastEnders style sees Archers miss their target

The violent death of one of its characters has shattered followers of this cosy drama, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

There are TV soaps, where daily, characters batter, cheat on and sometimes murder each other; and there is BBC Radio 4's The Archers, which Middle England has loved for 60 years for its calm reassurance that a small community like Ambridge village can be solidly rooted and mostly decent.

Originally billed as 'an everyday story of country folk', it's dominated by agricultural stories and humdrum family happenings. Now, after the shocking event of January 2, the producer is one of the most hated women in Britain.

I love The Archers but rarely watch soaps, but, since I read newspapers assiduously, their storylines are often forced on me, and I sometimes assuage my curiosity on the internet.

Most Archers listeners would turn up their noses at EastEnders, a drama of violent and promiscuous fold dealing routinely with rape, prostitution, abortion, mugging, racial antagonism, homophobia, drugs, incest and whatever you're having yourself. The tabloids are in uproar because a cot death at Christmas led to the bereaved mother stealing another baby and successfully passing it off as her own.

EastEnders' illegitimate offspring is our own Fair City, in which the inhabitants of north Dublin's fictional Carrigstown feature, and deals with similar issues: a recent hot storyline concerned the physical abuse, by his wife Suzanne, of Damien Halpin, a victim of our national financial collapse. Suzanne was angry – as one might well be if an early boyfriend, one's lecturer, turned out to be married and have slept with one's best friend; another had gone to jail for brutally murdering an innocent Nigerian and there committed suicide; and one's mother had had a stroke on one's wedding day.

The once respectable Coronation Street (aka Corrie) now chases ratings by following EastEnders into melodramatic depths. Take the schoolteacher Jack Stape. In less than four years in the street, he's had an affair with Rosie, a 16-year-old; imprisoned her in his dead granny's attic; been rendered unconscious when Rosie beaned him with a towel-rail; beaten up in jail; has stolen someone else's identity to get back into teaching; hidden a corpse; murdered his blackmailer and on and on and on. In December, to boost ratings, there was what the fans called 'Corriegeddon week', when a gas explosion in a pub during a stag night caused a tram to plunge from the viaduct onto Coronation Street, resulting in mayhem.

Emmerdale Farm, inspired by RTE's The Riordans, started out gently, but changed approach in 1993 by crashing a plane into the village and pulling in a huge new audience which it keeps well-supplied with shock and horror.

The Archers was so much not like that, although historians will point to Grace Archer being burned to death in a barn in 1955 on the night of the launch of ITV. For 60 years, the actors have remained freelance, but their conditions are flexible and it's easy for them to come and go: fans love that continuity. After 60 years, Norman Painter, who played Phil Archer, died at 85, two days after recording his last scene; at 90, June Spencer continues to play her character of 60 years, Peggy Archer.

Perhaps because Radio 4 types take an interest in current affairs, we want escapism, not social realism. We revel in occasional visits to Ambridge by reassuring figures like Terry Wogan, Alan Titchmarsh and Colin Dexter, and in storylines like Vicky Tucker muddling up the labels for strawberry and raspberry yoghurt because she's too vain to wear her glasses. And we resent the determination of Vanessa Whitburn, the producer since 1993, continually to force urban issues on The Archers – which she heretically redefined as a 'contemporary drama in a rural setting'. We didn't really want the gay kiss or the illegitimate Irish baby, we had doubts as to whether the bishop would really have welcomed the vicar marrying a practising Hindu, and only an outcry from fans stopped Whitburn from pushing Ruth Archer into bed with the cowman.

But what caused real outrage was the dreaded Whitburn being so intent on garnering media attention for the 60th anniversary, that a much-loved member of the show, Nigel Pargetter, fell off the roof of Lower Loxley Hall while taking down the New Year banner.

"Why me?" asked the broken-hearted Graham Seed, who'd been playing him for 30 years. "She said, 'Nigel's so popular, I've got to make an impact'." So she did, and the BBC is reeling from thousands of angry complaints, many driven by a conviction that Pargetter was targeted because he was the only posh person in the village.

Whitburn had better not climb onto the roof of any tall building for a while. Just because we listen to Radio 4 doesn't mean we don't get angry.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards