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Fecundity and mortality on The Archers

Monday 30 November 2009, 09:21

Mark Damazer Mark Damazer

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Archers studio yoghurt pots

At the end of last week I had my annual Archers plotlines meeting.

Those present - Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn and two trusty Archers senior producers, the Head of Radio Drama (England) and the Commissioning editor for R4 Drama - and R4's press officer.

A few days in advance I get a brown package and my PA hands it over to me. Inside is a 66-page, single-spaced A4-size document and a spreadsheet/calendar explaining how the plot will develop over time. The document is numbered and my PA wags her finger at me and reminds me that if I lose this I can say goodbye to my nice Radio 4 life and look forward to a lifetime of ignominy. I am terrified every year but thus far I have managed not to leave the papers anywhere more dangerous than the back of my car buried under a pile of Radio 4 CDs.

The meeting lasts a couple of hours as we haggle about who to make ill, happy, pregnant, successful and... yes... dead. We talk - heatedly - about actors.

There is much dark humour and some themes crop up every year... about the balance between The Archers family and others, the need to space out fecundity and mortality, the problems caused by actors' other commitments etc.

It's a fascinating and complicated business. Any number of criteria need to be juggled. Is a particular plot line really credible? Do we have the highlights spaced? Which plotlines will make a splash? What do we do with children whose voices may need to change? Are the lighter plots - often starring the 'rude mechanicals' - up to enough? Can we make sure the misery is not overwhelming and not all timed to take place over Xmas? Should we do something 'big' in the plot for the 60th anniversary (January 2011)? And how big (so there's a bit of Kremlinology for you)...

There's also a little bit of inter-generational justice at stake here. Vanessa could go for something huge - but we know that although that might have a very large impact now - what will it do to the long-term future of Ambridge and future listeners? And from time to time we will indeed do something huge (cf Sam/Ruth/David in 2006).

At the end of the meeting we agree two or three big changes but the bulk of the plan goes through. The numbered documents go to a shredder. I feel immediately calmer. My PA beams happily.

All I have to do now is to resist temptation and never tell anyone - not even my family - what's going on. I just look smugly superior as they try and guess.

Mark Damazer is Controller of BBC Radio 4

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    Comment number 1.

    On the whole I like the plotlines - they are not usually too far fetched! However, even though I don't like Helen much - she gets a raw deal in her love life, surely no-one of her age can be that unlucky and I think Leon is turning out to be a scum-bag! Shame!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    With the ending of the American soap opera 'Guiding Light' in September 2009, Mark, congratulations to 'The Archers' on finally becoming the longest running soap opera in the world.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Archers

    In terms of production, it is interesting to see how Radio 4 puts the programme together. I did not realise that the Controller of Radio 4, for example, had such a direct input into the plotlines.

    In terms of fecundity and mortality, immortality beckons?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Thank you for this insight. It seems to me that the Archers is getting shorter! Sometimes the news bulletin is nearly 3 minutes long, and eats into the programme time. How long is each episode timed to last?

    Also, can I just praise the acting of 'Jack' and 'Peggy' - they are handling Jack's decline so beautifully.

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    Comment number 4.

    "A few days in advance I get a brown package and my PA hands it over to me. Inside is a 66-page, single-spaced A4-size document and a spreadsheet/calendar explaining how the plot will develop over time. The document is numbered and my PA wags her finger at me and reminds me that if I lose this I can say goodbye to my nice Radio 4 life and look forward to a lifetime of ignominy. I am terrified every year but thus far I have managed not to leave the papers anywhere more dangerous than the back of my car buried under a pile of Radio 4 CDs."

    I've never understood this, the "Archers" is not the highly competitive world of TV soaps, if the next 12 months worth of plot-lines were known what other - competing - UK radio soap would benefit, what other UK radio station would benefit, those who follow the Archers do so because they are (OK, I'll admit it...) obsessed with the going-on in Ambridge - as far as I can see the only roth (or should that be Ruth...) you or anyone else loosing the plot-lines would see are the Archers addicts who might not want to know the future, there doesn't seem to be any other commercial (or broadcasting) concerns...

 

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