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Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Archers - Who Cares?

Why does it matter whether some dickhead at the BBC imports a kid from the telly to give The Archers a bit of a kicking?  After all the Archers is (are?) 64 years old and it’s about time they (it) was pensioned off.  It’s only a sort of soap opera about people who live in the country and therefore a bit of a joke.  And it’s only listened to by OAPs like me so why don’t I just shut up and F... off whinging?  Old people can’t hear the radio because they’re all deaf anyway.
I’m as old as the Archers.  It’s been there in the background throughout my life.  I don’t listen all the time and sometimes I don’t hear it for months at a stretch.  Things happen in Ambridge in the same way they used to do in my village - people die falling off roofs, people have affairs in tents, kids drown in slurry pits.  These things happen occasionally.  Sometimes they are quickly forgotten and sometimes they have long reaching after effects.  The point is that these events are not the focus of village life.  It is the people, the characters, how their lives are altered by events, in small ways or fundamentally and how they react to these changes that makes life fascinating.  In other words, stuff happens but life carries on.  
We’ll come to the bit about me later but let’s just consider what the Archers is or was until the ignoranti got at it.  For a start, it’s not a soap.  A soap is structured around events.  The difference between a soap and what is called in the trade “a continuing drama”is that soaps are event driven.  They were, after all, invented for the purpose of selling soap powder and their purpose was to pique the listeners interest and hold it for a few minutes until the next commercial break.  They had to be fast snappy and without any substance that required more than a moment’s thought.  The instruction given to writers was that there should be at least incidence of violence per episode.  Continuing Drama has a longer scope.  It is designed around a character or group of characters with the intention of keeping the listeners attention over weeks, months or years.  The Archers belonged to this genre. The Bill Matter for the programme was for many years “An everyday story of country folk”. It may have been melodramatic and creaky at times but at heart It was a continuing drama in which a number of characters are followed over a period of time with any events  observed through their reactions.  This character based sort of drama comes about because the characters are given long enough to develop and grow and change according to the unfolding events around them.  In this the Archers was unique.  It had 64 years of character development.  It was different from any other programme on the radio or television.  In its way it was a Stradivarius which writers, editors and actors had played with loving care.  Once a Strad is reduced to matchwood nothing can be played on it all.
Now the issue of it being set in a predominantly rural environment.  True.  And all the better for that.  In England 40% of the population lives outside cities and yet there is no programming which reflects their views or issues.The Archers used to have an agricultural story editor who used to make sure the current metropolitan misrepresentation of rural life was largely avoided.    The Archers was never particularly realistic but it did from time to time make hearts lurch when it touched upon real situations with characters we knew from childhood.  
Right, let’s get to this age thing and what makes me so cross.  The BBC management have this continuing hysteria about the need to attract young audiences particularly on the radio.  Something must be seen to be done or, they reason, their licence fee will be reduced.  However, I have followed The Archers since I was a baby and have grown old with it.  The age thing has never bothered me as it spoke to me at all ages and it did speak to me until a few months ago when it became unbearably silly. And now I am in another disadvantaged group - I am an old person and therefore should have as many programmes aimed at me as at the twelve year olds.
But let’s think of the target audience a little more closely.  Let’s say the BBC want to attract listeners from the thiry something group.  This is the age when people stop going out to clubs and spending their money getting pissed every night.  Now they are settling down with mortgages and could be captured by a radio programme.  But these people are not so stupid as the BBC management will allow them.  A young Mum at home with the kids needs something a bit more interesting than the mind numbing stuff on the telly.  Give her something to think about.  Something to aspire to.  Attract that thirty something audience and they will stay till they are my age now.  Thirty years of a guaranteed listenereship. But, wait a bit, I’m thinking of living another thirty years myself and providing you don’t f... about with the programme as you have been doing you have a bit more of a demographic spread and an assured listenership.  Follow current policy and you lose both.
One of the great things about programmes like the Archers is that they engender a loyal listenership.  They will stick with it through thick and thin.  Sometimes they are not able to listen for weeks or months at a time.  But in the end they will return and pick things up where they left them.  They will marvel at the odd things that have happened in their absence but will be glad that the characters are as they left them. It is this loyal listenership that has suffered most over the past six months.  They feel that they have some rights to a programme that they have supported throughout the years and they feel humiliated and insulted by the nonsense that is being served up to them.  The implicit metropolitan scathing ageism leaves a nasty taste. The current editor will leave in a short while.  He will have made his mark as the man gave those country bumpkins a bit of a shock and his career (Back in telly, of course) will be assured.  But for the listeners, the magic has gone.  Even if The Stradivarius can be glued back together it will never be played as sweetly as it once was.


Anonymous said...

Yes. Nothing more. Except, perhaps, the offer of a gargantuan amount of glue?

Steve Rudd said...

Excellent, and well-written. I would only quibble with one thing. I am fifty-nine and still spend my money on getting pissed every night.

Lin Perry said...

Agreed. Another (adult) life-long Archers listener - I've been listening, off and on, since before Pat and Tony married. What I always liked was its integrity - the characters changed over time and scriptwriters, but remained psychologically credible. And whilst there were highs and dramas, most programmes were about as dramatic as my local paper. But that was fine, because it was about people, and the scandals and disasters, as in life, mattered in relation to how people responded and reacted. Generations of scriptwriters have understood this, and did their homework so that the long shadows of events played out in lives, as they do in life. Real people don't conveniently forget about will conditions and family feuds. They don't just up and sell the family farm their parents and grandparents spent their lives to bequeath them. But then, neither do planning committees meet in secret and disclose their decisions to random corporate staffers. If the characters lose their credibility the series will lose its long-term listeners - and I currently see little that is likely to engage and sustain an alternative audience. Scriptwriters, you are not just cutting off noses to spite faces, you are disfiguring and fatally maiming. This is not going to look pretty on your CV.

Anonymous said...

The Archers has always had a cult following in Universities. My son listened as a student, and now works in a University, and tells me that this is still the case. Lots of young listeners, methinks.