The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 13th, 2005

Just listen … The Archers is telling us how to live

For years I have been ashamed of my addiction to The Archers. My family despise me for it and I accept their contempt with humility. They are right. The Archers is drivel. It’s the worst of English right-on whimsy. It’s not country life, it’s not nostalgia — it’s Islington-on-the-Wold. It’s probably damaging my brain and I should kick the habit. The fact that lots of my friends and acquaintances have the same terrible addiction is no excuse, I know.

Just because middle-class mummies across the nation tune in every night at seven while they chop organic courgettes or rip open Tesco ready meals does not mean that I should, I know.

But I carry on listening. I neglect my children and their homework for the sake of desperately dull characters that

I would cross the road to avoid. I can’t help myself. I can’t explain. That terrible, jaunty tune draws me in like the call of a bourgeois siren.

However, the weakness you can accept in yourself can be shocking in other people. I was amazed to hear the voice of Stephen Fry on the radio last week exclaiming how much he loves The Archers. How can this be possible, I asked myself. Fry is educated, intelligent, witty, intellectual, bohemian. He is far too sophisticated to have any time at all for the implausible and tedious niceness of The Archers, the opiate of the middle classes, surely? But so it is, apparently.

Not only Fry. It soon emerged that Victoria Wood also has this terrible habit. Actually I don’t find that quite so strange; I have never found her anything other than very conventional. Be that as it may, various glitterati, including the brilliant Sir Ian McKellen, had got together for last week’s Red Nose Day to compete for a starring role on Friday in a special spoof Archers episode written by Ms Wood.

Radio 4 listeners could give money to Comic Relief by paying for telephone votes and in the event Fry won. “Oh lordy, lordy,” he said. “It sounds like it’s Christmas. I couldn’t be more thrilled . . . I remember sitting at my mother’s knee listening to The Archers’ music. It’s just stitched into the fabric of my being.” Well fancy that, one can only say.

The Archers has 5m weekly listeners and millions more who have never heard it but know about it; it has entered popular culture.

What can account for the mysterious power of this ludicrous series? The usual explanation, which is true of all soap series, is that familiarity alone is comforting to the point of addiction. Friends, to which my children are addicted, is even worse drivel than The Archers. Neighbours was (when I last saw it) remarkably similar — and so was Coronation Street.

However, characters in soap fiction become part of your life to an extent that simply doesn’t bear too much examination. There was a moment in my childhood when Benny, the daffy young handyman in Crossroads, had flu in one episode. Tens if not 100s of viewers sent him woolly hats to keep him warm. Real woolly hats for a completely unreal person. Even as a child I realised this cast a disturbing light on some viewers’ grasp of reality.

With The Archers, though, I think there is a further explanation — one that deals with the strange appeal of the series to liberal intellectuals like Stephen Fry.

It’s not just that it fills the veg-prep quarter-hour for the Radio 4 listening classes, between the news and whatever is next. It’s that The Archers is covertly the archaic voice of the man from Whitehall, who always knows best what is good for us.

The series was conceived in 1951, in the post-war spirit of Clement Attlee, as an educational drama about farming. Note the idea of education; 1951 was the time of the new welfarism, the new nationalisation and state cod liver oil for all children — continuing the habit of extreme government control that had been formed during the war.

The man in Whitehall had become used to restraining our speech, moulding our minds and our bodies and administering our housing and our money. The habit did not end with the hostilities.

This mentality has been a long time a-dying. In fact it is still undead and 60 years later survives here and there throughout new Labour, our public services and not least the BBC. The Archers is still public education of the most paternalist sort. And it is a daily reaffirmation of values for those who share its mindset.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that The Archers helps to reinforce the quasi-religious beliefs of the past half-century in state provision, particularly in monolithic state schooling and the monolithic National Health Service. It is truly remarkable that many listeners are people who do not consciously identify with the programme’s central assumptions and implicit political stance. I hope that fans will not take me up on particular issues, such as foxhunting, on which the series has been even-handed. I am talking about its deeper assumptions.

If you want to know what is the proper or politically correct approach to anything, you have only to switch on The Archers. The right, decent, caring line on inclusion or grieving or fostering or breast cancer or rape or private schools or anorexia or social workers will be revealed through a clunking plot. And all these “issues” come into the story with almost surreal regularity. Life in Ambridge has the curious quality of being both exhausting and dull.

Inclusion and positive discrimination are the agenda. So we have had an Indian woman lawyer with a charming auntie, a gay chef followed by several gays, a female vicar, a motherless black daughter for the new male vicar and so on. It is a bit heavy, but it is educational in more than one way. It teaches you not just what to think but what, according to contemporary orthodoxy and the bien pensant man in Whitehall, you are supposed to think. Perhaps this is why The Archers is so acceptable to the old and new Labour luvvies, deeply conventional as they so often are.

Occasionally the series does lurch in the direction of art and anarchy. Once when I was begging my son to let me switch to the programme in the car, I told him (lying, as all addicts do) that it could sometimes be really interesting. He was incredulous but agreed and soon we were listening, laughing helplessly, as that maddening tune faded away to the sound of poor demented grandpa Joe Grundy solemnly bashing out the brains of his pet ferrets, crooning tenderly to them all the while. It was pure Cold Comfort Farm. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode did not live up to this early comic promise. It’s very difficult to be right-on and funny at the same time, except unconsciously.

The Archers would make wonderful comedy. Wood’s spoof episodes last week, although patchy and heavy-handed, proved that it has enormous potential as an entirely different kind of show. It would take only a very little light rewriting to make it absolutely farcical and hilarious..

It might also be politically subversive, which seems to be what all comedy writers think they ought to be but rarely are. Then perhaps addicts like me would not need to be ashamed any more.