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60th anniversary episode - a writer's perspective

Friday 7 January 2011, 14:00

Keri Davies Keri Davies Web Producer, The Archers

Mary Cutler, scriptwriter for The Archers

Archers scriptwriter Mary Cutler writes:

It is exciting but frightening to look at the schedule for the year and discover that you are writing the week of one of our big anniversaries. And in this case, because of the way the schedule worked out, the following week, too. Of course we are all aware that the programme will get even more attention than usual round such times and expectations will be high. And some people will be disappointed - I think every big story The Archers has ever done has been greeted by some people as too shocking/not shocking enough. But this is not our focus.

So what is our focus? I'm a Brummie, and Birmingham is a city that constantly reinvents itself, so I have lived all my life with the phenomenon that is the ever-changing Birmingham skyline. Mourning as a beloved building falls, and then being fascinated by the beauty of the landscape behind - the new perspective and fascinating possibilities.

This is what we try to do with our big stories. We want something from which the ripples will spread outwards not just for weeks and months but for years, because that is what we can do on The Archers. Of course we mourn Nigel. I have felt writing the week after the accident, and next week including the funeral, as one often does after a bereavement - possessed by his spirit.

My own father died when I was seven so writing for Elizabeth and the children has been particularly painful and moving. What will it do them? To David? To the whole Archer family? To the ecology of the village? The great, and I think unique, thing about The Archers is that we shall find out, properly, in real time. This is not just a headline grabbing two week wonder.

The advantage - one of many - to writing The Archers for such a long time (32 years this April and counting) is that I know the power of these stories, and I know once this initial shock has worn off, their infinite possibilities will start to work through.

We killed Mark Hebden leaving poor Shula a widow and subsequently a single mother, splitting up, in collateral damage, Caroline and then Vicar Robin Stokes. It seemed a terrible thing to do to Shula, and The Archers. But eventually it led, among other things, to Shula being torn between two lovers and feuding with Usha and all the hours of fun we've had from that. And if she hadn't met Alistair we should never have met Jim - the ramifications are endless.

Many of the big stories got mixed reactions. Susan Carter going to prison, Kathy being raped, all the triangles - David and Ruth and Sam, Jennifer and Brian and Siobhan... Mixed reactions among the script writers here with a sizeable minority wanting the guilty couple to run away to Hungary and start a new life.

New characters similarly often have a rough ride. Marjorie Antrobus and Lynda Snell may well have ended up as national treasures but that certainly wasn't what some of the audience thought to start with. So there is hope for Helen yet, and indeed the traumatic circumstances of Henry's birth and her absolute joy in motherhood will change her profoundly. Watch, or rather listen, to this space.

So why do our big stories provoke such strong reactions? I have two ideas. One is that it is the result of having such an intelligent and creative listenership. I mean that quite sincerely. I have lost count of the number times over the years that friends of mine speculating over current plotlines lines have come up with brilliant suggestions. Playing alternative Archers is a great game. Indeed there are still conspiracy theories circulating as to who was driving the car that frightened the horse that Mark Hebden swerved to avoid.

But it is a game, and writing - and running - The Archers is work. Very enviable work, but like all work it is constrained by realities: which actors are available, when and for how long, financial implications, the impact of events in the real world and maybe most importantly how much life and drama you can credibly squeeze into an hour and a quarter a week.

But I think there is something else our audience have in common. They are attracted to The Archers because it describes the enduring beauty of the English countryside and celebrates the never-ending joys and sorrows of life in a community. It's not that nothing dreadful happens - of course it does - but the trials and tribulations will be met with courage and love and humour and friendship - those eternal truths.

Which is a long way round to say that if you're an Archers listener it's possible you don't like change much. I don't myself, and I'm a listener, too - for even longer, if that's imaginable, than I've been a writer. Much longer; I was six when Phil Archer's wife Grace famously died in a fire, and I remember it distinctly. They can't do that! I thought indignantly. But what if they hadn't? No Jill. No Shula Kenton David Elizabeth. No Daniel Meriel Pip Josh Ben Freddie Lily. In fact - no Archers.

So keep listening, and bear with us. It will all come right in another sixty years.

Mary Cutler is the longest serving Archers scriptwriter.

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Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    "It will all come right in another sixty years."

    I'm not waiting that long thanks. As you said yourself, you already did this story with Shula...

    "They are attracted to The Archers because it describes the enduring beauty of the English countryside and celebrates the never-ending joys and sorrows of life in a community."

    Indeed we do. The anniversary episode can in no way be described as the above however. Many posters have already pointed out the complete implausibility of all aspects of the plot, so I won't repeat them.

    "So keep listening, and bear with us."

    Absolutely not! Bye..

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    Comment number 2.

    I think the main outrage is the fact a loved charecter gets killed off to celebrate 60 years of production. Shouldn't a celebration be joyful, not depressing?
    What is up with writers this xmas and new year? Tram crashes, cot deaths, folks falling off roofs?
    Did you all get out the bed the wrong side and thought if im not happy then nobody else will be in my script, so lets spread the misery?
    There was so much possibility to celebrate the 60th production year of the WORLDS LONGEST RUNNING radio drama, and the only sensation i've read is how badly it was hyped and how depressing the story line was.
    Yes the repercussions will continue for years, but that event could have happened at anytime, WHY in a celebration episode?
    Do the writers do a Conga when they hear someones died? If they do i suggest therapy and new writers as that seems their idea of a celebration.

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    Comment number 3.

    Mary, you say "Many of the big stories got mixed reactions".

    Well, this one hasn't. Everyone hated it.

    I'm not blaming you or any other writers personally... no doubt you were following the brief you were given. But it was an appalling misjudgement for the Editor to kill off a popular character for no apparent reason than hoping to get a (brief) boost to the ratings.

    This storyline has been roundly condemned; it was no way to celebrate a 60th anniversary.

    As mentioned previously, a much better outcome would have been to have Nigel slip and to be left dangling on the drainpipe for a cliff-hanger ending. The next episode he could have been rescued by the fire brigade. Drama and humour! That's entertainment - a concept apparently not understood by the Editor. This was just plain nasty.

    The clock should now be turned back and this episode expunged from the record!

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    Comment number 4.

    No-one in real life missed Mark Hebden when he died, did they, not even the actor who played him!

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    Comment number 5.

    "This is not just a headline grabbing two week wonder."

    Right, and that's why I probably won't be bothering to tune in over the coming weeks/months/years. More grieving widows, fatherless children, and feuding families--the same stuff we've already had in spades this year.

    "So there is hope for Helen yet, and indeed the traumatic circumstances of Henry's birth and her absolute joy in motherhood will change her profoundly. Watch, or rather listen, to this space."

    Again, no thanks. I simply can't find the "change" in Helen to be believable character growth (something I used to love about TA)--this sounds like an overnight brainwashing or character transplant.

    If this is what TA will centre around for the next 60 years--New Improved Helen as happy mum and the rest of the family fighting miserably over the death of one of the few "fun" characters--I will turn elsewhere.

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    Comment number 6.

    I have never heard such a load of nonsense. What utter tosh ts say that had Grace not died there would be no Shula, Kenton, David etc. YOU ARE A SCRIPTWRITER! You create whichever characters you choose - and had Grace lived then you had to power to give her those children.
    Actually this article confirms what I had feared. The producer and writers on TA are all quite insane. This explains why they would write out one of the characters who made us want to listen. Such a suicidal move. I quit TA on Sunday cold turkey. It hasn't been difficult - I had quite enough of widows and bereaved families in 2010 with Phil and Sid. Really - I would have thought a team of writers could have thought of something more original than yet more grieving families.

    To sum up. Cruel, crass, rude, igorant and fundamentally boring.

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    Comment number 7.

    Mary, you've sadly met all my expectations. My prediction was that anyone involved in the production of TA would respond to listeners' reactions with the following:
    1. No response at all to the accusations of clunky scripts, out-of-character actions and personality changes
    2. No response at all to the wholesale condemnation of an unnecessary death to mark an anniversary
    3. No response at all to the suggestion that something good and unexpected would have been a fitting way to mark the anniversary
    4. A justification of the anniversary episode and its consequences
    5. A complete glossing-over of the fact that, unlike previous major events in TA, this one has provoked NO debate - just almost universal condemnation
    You say that without other deaths certain things wouldn't have happened. Maybe not, but other things would - or is the production team only capable of producing a series which deals with responses to death? Starting to feel that way to me - three in a year, and all men, to boot!
    Furthermore, you describe the TA listenership as "intelligent and creative" then go on to condemn us as possibly not liking change much. Creative yet change-averse? Hello? Wait for the next 60 years for it all to come right? Okay, I can turn off till then!

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    Comment number 8.

    Mary's beautifully written response addresses the big issue - the death of a major character - which is not something I personally have a problem with. She has elegantly implied what some of us have suspected - that Nigel's rather limited persona did not offer much in the way of interesting plot or character development and there are more possibilities without him than with him.

    My criticism was that it was not particularly well-executed. However, I do have sympathy there - writing such a major event to such a tight specification is a tall order and, as she says, the pressure was huge.

    The hype was overblown which made that weakness more visible but then I suspect there are bigger issues there - the positioning of the BBC as a source of entertainment and so on - although it would have been better if the programme's management had resisted that particular pressure rather more than they did.

    PS. Please don't make Helen into a glowing advert for motherhood - that really would be incredible (far more than falling from the roof of an aristocratic pile in an attempt to bring down a new year's banner in a storm when it could just as easily waited which is the type of thing that can happen to any of us).



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    Comment number 9.

    What a let down Mary!!!!
    We ALL hate the script, it was unanimous, there is no debate we are furious!!!! Are you not ashamed of the fact that the actual storyline was so unbelievable, yes people do have accidents and fall off roofs but Nigel and David would never have climbed up onto an icy roof in the dark on a windy night just to get down a silly banner. Also, the rest of England was knee-deep in snow at that time and you Archers script-writers pride yourselves on being acurate and topical; even managing to get in spot-on reactions to the World Cup etc.

    If you HAD to suddenly kill off Nigel why wasn't it a more believable death, another car accident would have been more realistic. This script seems rushed and an insult to us loyal listeners.

    Can you please tell your boss Vanessa to answer our posts, this is really the limit now and your explanation falls far short of the mark I'm afraid.

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    Comment number 10.

    I'm speechless.......... well, almost. What a lot of self-serving pants.

    Where do I start? We was robbed. There are so many holes in your justification, it's hard to know..... but, OK, taking just a few of them: comparing TA to a city skyline is a stretch, but .... nah! that's too easy a target; if Grace hadn't died there wouldn't have been a Jill? THIS IS FICTION, Mary, Shula and Kenton etc could have been Grace's children. DUH!

    I could go on but it's like talking to a sponge. You'll just continue to soak it up and blunder on.....

    What you still don't seem to understand is that you've done permanent (for the moment at least, until listener numbers drop like a stone) damage and the storylines that will come out of it are not new at all. To paraphrase Eric Morcambe, the same words ... just in a different order: -

    (i) You've said it yourself, Shula (and Jill... and Jolene too) have been widowed already. Why do you want us all to live with unnecessarily frequent death??

    (ii) Rows in the Archer clan - Oh, Please! It's been done to, well, death, really ..... and while I'm on it

    (iii) All the dramas you've mentioned - Yeah, the love triangles, the daft / disfunctional / downright dislikeable behaviour, were things that caused flutterings and debate on the messageboards. This ..... this travesty of clumsiness has caused no debate at all. We universally think you've dropped a large pile of poop.

    (iv) "...but like all work it is constrained by realities..." Not much evidence of that when it came to, say, the hunting debate, the election, the Chilean miners..... and it's been said before that the death stats in such a small interlinked group would have most people moving away from Ambridge. You can't have it both ways, Mary. Either it's a tough, gritty reality, or it's the programme-unlike-Stenders that we all used to love.

    And finally, how ridiculously patronising and unaware you are to say that we might be Archers listeners because we don't like change. How ironic....... we'd very much like a change ...... of both editor and writing team.

    PS How about celebrating with a truly fun event with genuine ripples .... It's not hard. Grundys win lottery. Just think about it......

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    Comment number 11.

    I can understand why, for dramatic purposes, a key character might need to be 'killed off' in a long running soap. What I can't understand is why this death should coincide with a much-hyped 'celebration' of the programme and why it should coincide with dispensing of the services of a much appreciated actor who would have been happy to continue with the role.

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    Comment number 12.

    Well Mary Cutler and the other writers, and Vanessa Whitburn and all the produciton team - how does it feel knowing that you will go down in history as the group of people who have probably effectively killed off the longest-running and best-loved radio programme in the world?
    Like many others I've listened to The Archers since its start in 1951 - I was only four and a half then, but was brought up listening to it because my parents did, and by the time I left home it was an unbreakable habit (though by then I kept in touch via the Sunday omnibus edition). No more though - this nasty, cheap, completely unnecessarily sensational storyline (to be expected in the tackier, gaudier world of TV soap writing), has made me defect and break a lifetime listening habit. What should have been a joyous occasion has become a funeral (literally).
    How dare you people be so disregarding of your 'customers' (the millions of devoted Archers listeners)? Your egos seem to make you think you may do exactly as you wish with 'OUR' programme - but you should realise that you, like all your predecessors, have only ever been granted the privilege of temporary custody of this 'jewel' of the airwaves. It is absolutely NOT your right to upset and infuriate what I'd guess is probably 90+% of Archers' listeners. How would you like it if you employed (because indirectly that's what the listening audience does - without suficient listeners the show will die, and your jobs with it), someone to look after your children - and after years of by and large doing so fairly well, they suddenly go berserk and kill one of your favourites? Extreme? Perhaps this view is - but it does reflect the anger and sadness which your nasty sensation-seeking writing has engendered in so many. If Graham Seed had wanted to leave, that would have been a different matter. His voice is so distinctive that you couldn't possibly ever replace him with another actor - but he didn't, and I imagine that this vicious ploy has left him and his colleagues extremely upset. Some reward for nearly 30 years loyal service. Sadly typical of the BBC these days.
    Many thanks to Graham for nearly 30 years of entertainment and much laughter - and many commiserations to all he cast. In much the same way that the last government obliterated centuries of 'Britishness' - this writing and production team has murdered the biggest institution in British broadcasting! Are your nasty ideas and unassailable egos satisfied? You will remain forever unforgiven by a very large number of people.

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    Comment number 13.

    Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, famously explained his 'bomb theory'. He said if two people were sitting at the table and a bomb suddenly went off, that would be a huge shock. It would be much better to show the bomb ticking away, but the people sitting at the table don't know it's there. This builds suspense. And the bomb doesn't actually need to explode.... Something else unexpected can happen.

    In contrast, Nigel suddenly slipping and falling to his death was a total waste - and a slap in the face for loyal listeners.

    Given the daft and unbelievable idea of David and Nigel going up on the icy roof in a howling gale in the first place, there could have been a much better outcome. What about some humour?

    Full marks to Mary for trying to defend this dreadful storyline, but it doesn't wash.

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    Comment number 14.

    Mary can only answer as a scriptwriter - the ill conceived plot was not her responsibility although I imagine the team discussed it. The Arena showed that VW rules from above and it is she who should answer our questions about why this story was chosen and why it was so overhyped. Her silence speaks volumes about her attitude towards her audience. She holds us in contempt.

    And no I don't want helen transformed by motherhood. The story has been vile from the outset. I would prefer her to leave the area and never be heard of again rather than have her turned into a madonna-like character. But again VW thinks we listeners don't understand Helen. Silly us.

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    Comment number 15.

    Yes, indeed, what a let down. Contrived situations more befitting a third-rate American soap and yet more grief and sorrow to come. Jill, Jolene and Kathy have suffered bereavement in the past year, and Peggy has effectively lost her husband to dementia. Was another Ambridge widow really necessary? I'm 63. I don't need this constant harping on death. I've stopped listening (after nearly 40 years).

    As for the complacently insulting, "if you're an Archers listener it's possible you don't like change much" unfortunately I cannot think of a response to this which would get past the moderator!

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    Comment number 16.

    The first time I listened to the Archers was perhaps 60 years ago with measles, confined to bed with a small white plastic looking radio. Since then where ever I have been in the world I have tried to follow the program.
    The BBC podcast system is my link to the UK. The Archers have always reminded me of my life in the UK. Even one of my sons who lives in New Zealand is an avid fan.

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    Comment number 17.

    I have just listened to the recent episode and it is all about Helen and Tony and the baby. Nigel has just tragically died for God's sake!!!! If you are going to do dramatic death please write about it, I want the details of the death, I want to know how Lizzie told her children, I want to know what is going on at Lower Loxley not about Helen and Tony and Joe's mistletoe. If you want interesting and educating storylines which will move the listeners then show us the grit please, I would like to know what this sort of grief is like from a widow and her children. No, you've taken the easy option and ignored it. I cannot ignore it, every time I listen I am shouting at the radio: "What about poor Nigel, you all knew him, you saw him every week, he just stole the show in the panto!" I live in a smallish place (nowhere near as small as Ambridge) and whenever anyone dies tragically (which is VERY rare) the whole town goes on about it for weeks even if they never met the deceased.

    Change the storyline now please, re-write the script and change it to a celebration. The suggestion to have The Grundys winning the lottery is believable and fun with many permutations. We don't want feuds, most families DO NOT have feuds that run and run with malice, that is why we all love the Archers because it is so believable. People do stay faithful for years, people do fall out and then apologise, people do talk about eacother as therapy but never let it overtake their lives; that is real and Mary you have done it very well in the past.

    Don't tell me that a sensible woman like you actually agrees that the roof incident was in any way believable, it was not, it would have been impossible in middle England in the winter of 2010 because of the snow; the worst since records began.

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    Comment number 18.

    Mary's well written and informative piece fails to address the basic problem that has been posted widely on the message boards. We don't believe that Nigel and David would have been up on the roof of Lower Loxley taking down a banner in obviously hazardous conditions.

    Now the problem with that lack of belief is that if we don't believe in the starting event then we don't believe any thing that follows from it. We don't believe David would have encouraged Nigel on to the roof so we don't believe his remorse, we don't believe Elizabeth is justified in blaming him for Nigel's death. The scripts going forward may be brilliant, but we don't believe where they started from, so we don't believe where they go.

    Now if we don't believe what is happening why should we be interested. There is of course the theatrical tradition of taking a ridiculous hypothesis and running with it but I doubt it is the intention that the Archers turns into a farce.

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    Comment number 19.

    Thank you for your response Mary. I don’t envy you your task, acting as curator for a national treasure. I understand your point about needing, “something from which the ripples will spread outwards not just for weeks and months but for years” but I don’t feel you have explained why that had to be a death. As others have remarked above and elsewhere, there are numerous alternative storylines that could have had just as much long term impact.
    I echo the sentiments of Eggnut, Rumble, INW and galrita, when they say we have had enough death in the programme in recent months. Surely something else could have been produced for the celebration? What now? Are we going to have a misery fest of weeping widows, with Jill, Kathy, Jolene and Elizabeth all competing to be the most devastated and distraught? Will Jamie, having been cruelly trumped in the recently bereaved troubled child stakes, spontaneously recover from his delinquency and provide stalwart support for the twins? Grrrrrrrr if he does, but it’d be no more unlikely than that both Jill’s daughters would lose their husbands to accidental deaths.
    You admit The Archers has already done this storyline with Shula, “We killed Mark Hebben leaving poor Shula a widow and subsequently a single mother, splitting up, in collateral damage, Caroline and then Vicar Robin Stokes.” It’s been done once, why do it again and so closely following the deaths of Phil and Sid?
    I would be grateful if someone from the production team could answer this point. Why did it have to be a death, when an identical storyline has already been written for Elizabeth’s sister and when some of the most significant developments in recent months have involved responses to the deaths of first Phil and then Sid?

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    Comment number 20.

    Mary, I would like to ask you a serious question. Did you originally envisage Kenton being on the roof with Nigel for the fatal accident? I ask because it seemed to me that David's actions and especially his words ('Are you a man or a mouse, Nigel?') were completely and utterly unbelievable for his character.

    Was it decided that there were more future dramatic possibilities if David, and not Kenton, was on the roof? If so, I really wish that you had written more convincing and in-character dialogue or better still, another situation altogether. Nothing will convince me that David would have gone onto that icy roof, after drinking, in the dark and during a gale - merely to get a banner. Kenton, yes, at a pinch. Or maybe even David, if there was an emergency repair to make, or to save someone. But a banner? It's too silly. Such a shame.

 

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The Archers 60th - bits and pieces

Thursday 6 January 2011, 16:13

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Listener responses to The Archers' 60th anniversary episode

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