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The Archers editor on the 60th anniversary

Sunday 9 January 2011, 11:39

Vanessa Whitburn Vanessa Whitburn

A week on from marking our 60th anniversary, and it's clear it's not just the residents of Ambridge who are talking about recent events in Borsetshire.

I have a two inch high pile of press cuttings before me. Many celebrate the amazing achievement of a drama having reached its diamond jubilee, making it currently the longest running soap in the world. Others look back at the storylines that have gripped Archers fans over the last 60 years. Beside that, a report showing hundreds of listener comments about the anniversary episode. And then one of the team pops in to tell me that during the anniversary episode on 2 January, The Archers and 'SATTC' was the most discussed subject on Twitter in the world.

Who would have thought that SATTC - Shaking Ambridge to the Core - a line coined as part of an obscure BBC policy document in May - would capture the imagination of so many.

I was editor for the 50th anniversary too, but it was nothing like the 60th. Yes, as with the 50th, I took part in a handful of interviews but unlike ten years ago, this time many more Archers fans got to join in the conversation through Twitter, forums and message boards. And so it was after the SATTC line was picked up by an Archers fan, on-line conversations began, building over months to what some called a frenzy reported widely in the press in the lead-up to the anniversary. Speculation was rife and grew exponentially, perhaps fuelled by the fact that despite being constantly asked, I wasn't about to reveal what happened before 2 Jan.

I read comments from some listeners who said they didn't feel 'shaken' by the anniversary episode and others who definitely did. But in the drama we can already see, I believe, how it is shaking Ambridge and the Archer family particularly to the core. It will continue to do so as time goes on. I also believe the anniversary episode was well balanced; relief that Helen and the baby survived their ordeal, a hugely emotional reunion between Tony and Helen set against the high drama of Nigel's fall. For each episode we strive to get the balance right in keeping with the 'everyday story of country folk' where our roots began all those years ago. Importantly though we have a modern outlook in recognition of how the rural community and the wider Archers audience has changed since 1951.

Reading the listener comments, I sense almost a mourning, an outpouring of grief for Nigel. For some it was highly emotional - 'I was moved to tears' said one listener. And dramatic - 'I felt exhausted afterwards' said another. What followed in the episodes this week has provided the chance for Archers listeners to empathise and share with Lizzie's loss, as they did with Peggy as Jack succumbed to Alzheimer's. But each comment, be it complimentary or critical, strikes me with the heartfelt passion with which it is written. A passion for Ambridge and its characters. A passion I share.

I've been Archers editor for twenty years and worked as a producer and director on the show before that. Throughout, for me and the Archers scriptwriting team, characters come first. They drive the story; what they do has to be truthful and believable. 'David would never have gone on the roof, he's too sensible', I read in one listener comment. I argue he would! A busy farmer wouldn't want to take time out the next day to come back to Lower Loxley to do that. And David's a bear of a man, used to physical exertion. I suggest he wouldn't feel fearful of a climb on to what was essentially a steady roof. But the wind gets up suddenly and of course poor Nigel gets caught up in the banner and is blown over the edge.

Was it sensationalist to kill off Nigel? I don't believe it was. People in real life - and so our characters - are killed in surprising and shocking circumstances. Granted, in Ambridge that is not very often and anybody who knows the Archers well would not expect anything melodramatic or sensationalist. Instead sometimes startling singular events, like a sharp pebble thrown into a pond, send ripples reverberating through storylines well into the future.

Remember when Mark was killed? Caroline was fearful that her friendship with Shula would be shattered because it had been her horse that bolted and helped to make Mark crash. Then a week after his death, Shula discovered she was pregnant with Mark's child, the child he would never see. We saw Shula grieve, taking comfort slowly from the birth of her son Daniel and gradually recovering to meet and then marry Alistair, opening up further stories as Alistair struggled to forge his relationship with Daniel.

Or young John's death under the tractor? Hugely upsetting at the time of course. But recall the impact this had on his parents. The father who found him there at the scene. The mother who succumbed to but overcame depression. A sister who has struggled with anorexia and control freakery since, perhaps at least in part to the trauma of losing her brother in such a traumatic way.

And so many months before the anniversary, I sat down with the Archers script team to discuss what we might do for our 60th year. It is such a significant milestone to have reached, we felt compelled to mark it with a storyline that would have impact. When I say impact what do I mean? We wanted an event. Not a cataclysmic one - no tram crashes - but one where the ramifications would be felt far and wide throughout Ambridge for the decade that followed. We felt that the event had to be deeply traumatic. And so we arrived at a death. But who? Again after much debate and thinking how each one would impact on Ambridge life. We arrived at Nigel.

Nigel - liked by all in Ambridge, loved by Lizzie and the twins - of course his death would be painful for them. But not just that. How will Lizzie cope running Lower Loxley. She's got a good business head on her shoulders but she's physically weak with a congenital heart defect. David, as we saw in the episode after the anniversary, is completely distraught and guilty that he didn't prevent it somehow. The scenes so movingly acted by Tim Bentinck lit up the message board again, with listeners saying how emotional they had found it. We heard how David rushed to Lizzie's aid at Lower Loxley, leaving Ruth to run the farm. Their marriage has hit rough patches in the past, could this pressure unpick a scab? Well the list goes on and on as to what may happen, and the Archers discussion forums will pulsate as ever as fans enjoy trying to second guess which way it will turn.

And I couldn't write this without paying tribute to Graham Seed, the actor whom I cast as Nigel in 1983; who left for a short period in 1986 but whom I thankfully managed to persuade to come back into the show and after working together for many years, directed in his last scene. A talented actor, Graham made Nigel his own with a subtle and spirited performance that will go down in soap opera history. And befittingly we have given Nigel a grand exit that listeners will talk about for years to come.

Some have suggested that I told Graham that his part was being written out in a quick and careless phone call just before the studio. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact I spoke to Graham on the phone several weeks before the studio and we had a long and as Graham put it on breakfast television this week, 'courteous' conversation. I do not mean to suggest by this that Graham was happy about the news, nor that I enjoyed having to tell him. Such conversations are never easy but they come, occasionally, with the territory of being the Editor. I spoke on the phone because Graham does not live in Birmingham and, like all our freelance actors, was only ever in the studio for a day or so each month and sometimes not even that . Graham is a working actor living in London. I saw him in studio after that call and it was a privilege to direct him in his last studio.

We have started the chain of events that will shake Ambridge to the core as only The Archers can and should shake Ambridge, which is profoundly and deeply. There will be very hard times as a result of what happened on that roof and very touching and supportive times too. And the repercussions will burn slowly, sometimes painfully, sometimes brightly, like the torch young Freddie, our aristocrat in the making, carries for his father.

Vanessa Whitburn is editor of The Archers.

Comments

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 21.

    "relief that Helen and the baby survived their ordeal, a hugely emotional reunion between Tony and Helen set against the high drama of Nigel's fall"

    I am not relived that Helen and the baby survived their ordeal. I really do not care in any way shape or form what happens to Helen. The hugely emotional reunion between Tony and Helen was simply not believable, people do not change character that quickly; unless of course it's in the context of a poorly plotted soap opera.
    Nigel was a character that brought some sunshine and humour into what has recently become a tale of doom and gloom. I feel the way in which his character was 'killed' was so out of character to be ridiculous. Who goes out on a roof at night when it's icy (where was the snow everyone else had?) and the wind's getting up? Believable? No; In character? No.
    I was under the impression that The Archers was a radio drama. The recent plotting is turning it into a soap, and, in my view, a soap that is fast sliding downhill. Where has the joy and fun gone gone?
    I really do dislike what you have done to The Archers. It's not believable anymore, it's certainly not entertaining, it's really not worth listening to anymore.

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    Comment number 22.

    Thanks Vanessa - your post was very interesting.
    I have been listening to The Archers for about 50 years and just love it as a background to my real life. I seem to be in a minority here but I loved all the hype & excitement leading up to the 60th anniversary episode and I am eager to find out what happens next.
    Unlike others I shan't stop listening (far from it!) but may indeed stop lurking on the message boards because they have become too negative & boring. Please lets have some fun again chaps!

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    Comment number 23.

    I disagree with the negative comments above. I've been listening to the Archers (my Sunday morning treat) for over 30 years. It's a soap and, like the best of soaps, has a mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. I've been 'shaken to the core' by the storylines on many occasions over the years. This only happens because the storylines are well written and performed.

    I think the nature of Nigel's death was actually in keeping with his character. Nigel's done loads of daft things (what larks Pip!) over the years - it's in his nature. Although he's gradually matured and occasionally shown signs of using his common sense, putting a banner on the roof is exactly the sort of thing he'd do - to please Lizzie.

    The ridiculous Eastenders plot is based on the premise that all babies look the same and no-one in the family would notice a swap! In stark contrast, this Archers storyline could happen, and indeed has happened, in real life - remember Rod Hull?

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    Comment number 24.

    I feel that I've said pretty well all I need to say about the storylines on the messageboard, though clearly Vanessa has not read any of it.

    I will repeat one piece here:

    How crashingly stupid to "celebrate" what should be a joyful occasion with a tragedy, and what's more, a tragedy which will just cause more of the bickering and bitterness and guilt and angst of which there is plenty in life (or in the TV soaps, I believe, if one wants it in fiction) and which is NOT part of what TA is, except in small quantities and with a light brush. Yes, "a light brush" was one of the lovable things about TA and why so many of us listened. And because of the CHARACTERS. "Character-led", not "issue-led" - that was TA. And if any storyline has been issue-led it has been the one about Helen and her baby, when the Helen we have known for years, the very difficult, self-centred person with major mental health problems, has suddenly been transformed by giving birth.

    The point was that it WAS unlike the other soaps. THAT IS WHY WE LISTENED. It is so no longer.

    I will never listen again. This was such a totally wrong decision. It is not a one-off wrong decision, but indicates someone who simply "does not get" what TA is; with that person in charge it will just continue to be more and more rubbish-soapified. I have never been a watcher of TV soaps but I have loved TA all my life.

    Although after That Episode I knew I would never listen again, all the same I was surprised to note that I couldn't even be bothered to read the synopsis or look at the Spoilers thread, because I no longer care. I know that it will be all bereavement and family squabbles from here on in (with the occasional cut to the miraculously transformed Helen plus miraculously perfect baby), and thanks but no thanks. I can get that in real life. I don't want more of the same instead of the gentle escapism that was TA.

    I am nearly as disgusted with the piece above as I was with the two storylines mentioned.

    No response, of course, to those of us who will never listen again. No response to those of us who listened to TA for the gentle escapism, the basic optimism, the light brush, the good writing, the largely believable, character-led storylines, ach, just the high quality of it all. No response at all.

    I'm not calling for your resignation, Vanessa, simply because I think you have broken The Archers beyond repair.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 25.

    Grieving Jill, then grieving Jolene followed by grieving Lizzie. Oh what tedium. The trouble is that when one person does something for too long then what they are doing simply becomes a reflection of their own self. This is sadly what has happened to The Archers. I understand that Vanessa has her own agenda and believes the 'soap' to be a legitimate tool of social engineering. However, many of us do not agree with her outlook and it not just that one person should be given licence fee payers' money increasingly to proselytise their own views. Eighteen years is too long for one person to be able to express their own outlook. It is now the time to give another person the chance to be the editor of the Archers.

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    Comment number 26.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer some of the issues raised by the 60th anniversary celebrations. It is a well thought out rational reply that rises above the rants and personal attack that have appeared on the message board. I have enjoyed the storyline and feel Ambridge is in safe hands while looking forward to the future.

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    Comment number 27.

    Vanessa,

    I thought the 60th anniversary was OK, but the wrong person fell off the roof. The character of Nigel brought not just humour to the programme, but was the most decent, kind (and in some ways thoughtful) resident of Ambridge and its environs. These qualities are not present to the same degree in any other regular character on the programme and have now been lost.

    On the other hand I was pleased with how the Helen storyline developed and look forward to hearing her struggles and successes as a mother.

    As I'm sure you are aware the majority of people posting on blogs, message boarders etc are not happy, indeed a lot less happy than I am. I believe a significant part of this is due the over-hyping of the anniversary episode by trailers, press statements, interviews given by cast members and so on. Even those "teasers" in the Radio Times combined with pre-published cast lists mean that plot developments can often be forecast. This pre-publicity has the effect of building up a level of expectation which means that many (arguably the majority) of listeners will end up being disappointed.

    You have a great product with TA and you don't need to oversell it. For the next anniversary you should sit on your hands and say very little. These days the audience will sell the programme for you via the internet.

    PS Perhaps Nigel has some distant cousin who might turn up in Ambridge? (Didn't he work for an uncle in Africa years ago - so there is clearly a branch of the family that we have heard very little about?)

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    Comment number 28.

    Your response is inadequate.The emotional response you sense is not 'an outpouring of grief' over Nigels death but incandescent fury over your complete mismanagement of the whole affair, your hamfisted blurting out of the storyline on the Today programme and your patronising disregard for the listener as you try to fob us off with the programme itself and your self-aggrandising reply.

    Yrs

    The wrong sort of listener

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    Comment number 29.

    I don't understand why you think that people would feel relief that 'Helen and her baby survived their ordeal'. Many of us would have been much more relieved if this improbable story line had quietly disappeared.
    You have said elsewhere that Helen is misunderstood and that she is as she is because of all the things that have happened to her. But surely you must know people who have endured much worse than Helen but not descended to such unremitting unpleasantness? I certainly do.
    You could go some way towards redeeming the Helen situation by allowing the other characters to criticise her occasionally (most villages are rife with gossip - why should Ambridge be any different?). After all, the appalling Vicky has become much more palatable since Ed told her a few home truths and some of the other characters have become less approving of her.
    And as for Nigel... well the other posters have said it all really.

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    Comment number 30.

    Back in 1994, after your near fatal road accident, you were quoted as having said:

    "The fact that you can disturb people so much raises ethical dilemmas for everyone involved."

    "With strong drama your aim is to encourage empathy and not to blight people's lives."

    It was also written of you that "A greater awareness of the power of fiction to evoke real pain is one lasting effect of her accident."

    Well, you must have a very short memory. This appallingly clumsy 60th Anniversary edition was truly your Ratner moment and I am aghast at the lack of any apology in your blog for the enormity of your decision to use this story line. You do not even acknowledge the anger and outrage you have caused and clearly have no empathy with the programme's audience.

    You have destoyed a much cherished national treasure; clearly it is now time for you to go and for the programme to be taken off-air until a new team can manage to salvage what they can from the destruction you have wrought.

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    Comment number 31.

    As would be expected, patronising piffle. You have caused serious damage to a programme held dear by many people. The reasons are set out very clearly in the message boards. You have also treated a courteous, very popular actor very shabbily, no matter how you dress it up, for cheap sensationalism I am one of the many long standing listeners who stopped listening on the 2 January 2011 (Mozart on Radio 3 to replace the Omnibus today). It would not be so bad if you had the good grace to apologise for your mistake but no, you just sail on regardless in your usual headmistress/nanny style and your post even seems to have the temerity to be impliedly rebuking us for complaining about your vandalism.

    If you are so right, why not organise a poll? Preferably, please apologise for this very bad mistake and then resign.

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    Comment number 32.

    And so we arrived at a death. But who? Again after much debate and thinking how each one would impact on Ambridge life. We arrived at Nigel.

    That meeting must have been fascinating as you went through the possiblities of who it would be and the impact it would have.
    Thanks, Vanessa for the blog post.
    I for one have not switched off. Glued to the radio all week I was, and listened to the Omnibus again this morning.
    As radio drama, it was excellent.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 33.

    I felt no sense of relief at Helen and the baby being safe - quite the opposite. The Radio Times spoiler for the week said you would have needed a heart of stone not to have felt sympathy for Helen so I expected the baby to be near death or even die. And yet everything went off swimmingly. I feel deeply let down that a woman who has behaved outrageously (if very entertainingly as I consider her to be quite mad) over the last few months and bullied everyone including her own father nearly to tears, has had her arrogance rewarded by everything being perfick. Ghastly stuff.

    I think the real shame is that the prodteam failed to have the courage to follow through the Ruth and Sam story, which would have been terrific - the break up of Brookfield to fund a divorce - very zeitgeisty - capital being handed to Shula, Lizzie and Kenton, and Dave trying to set up a farm on a much reduced scale plus struggling with the loss of his children and opportunities for new romance. Instead we have yet another grieving widow story. I know they say everything comes in 3s but having near drowned in Jolene's tears I'm only just about dried out and don't feel inclined to plunge back into the pool of tears quite so soon.

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    Comment number 34.

    Joanna Townmouse, cw, thank you. I agree.

    There is simply no way they would have been on the roof. I doubt in real life the insurance would cover them. (Perhaps it doesn't, and now they have to sell the farm to cover Lizzie's costs?)

    I am so sad that the whole character of this programme has been altered in such an unnecessary way. It will be a long time before us 'chaps' can have funm I fear. I probably won't be hearing it, anyway.

    I wonder what effect this storyline has had on the other actors? Apart from wondering if they will be next (watch out Brian and Jim, you're a bit posh intya?) it must have been simply awful for the children.

    I have worked in places where there has been bullying and I have to say, this whole situation rings a lot of bells for me. I wonder how people are really feeling in the studio. Their silence is pretty eloquent. I haven't seen any of them supporting the wonderful ideas for 60th.

    By the way why was Harry and Fallon's romance flagged up so much only to not even get a mention? Are they going to be killed off in a milkfloat-packed-with-explosives sudden braking incident?

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    Comment number 35.

    Post 21 sums up why I have stopped listening. It confirmed that the personality changes, poor research and continuity errors noted of late were't aberations but the shape of things to come.

    I liked Nigel but I don't object to character's being killed off per se.

    The Helen storyline didn't cause relief but nausea and at a storyline so unbelievable and saccharine. I took a look at this to see if there was any hope..but I find only complacency and failure to address the central issues rather than the peripheral ones such as the nature of the ending of Graham Seed's tenure.

    I have no idea what a cat strangler but I guess that its opposite is brown noser. Anyway this really is it from me so no doubt the Panglossians will be delighted.

    So long,

    ginslinger - wrong sort of listener for twenty years.....

  • rate this
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    Comment number 36.

    I am very glad that the (effectively) sacking of Graham Seed wasn't as callous as it seemed to be from his piece on this website.

    It really surprises me that you can't see the difference between the death of John Archer (which was similarly trailed and hyped, though at least you managed not to let slip on the Today programme that he would be killed) and that of Nigel Pargetter.

    You made a serious error of judgement in coming up with this development, which is not at all helped by the clunky plotting and (I'm sorry to say) writing.

    After 40 years listening, I've stopped now. When I hear there's a new editor, I may start listening again.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 37.

    "And so many months before the anniversary, I sat down with the Archers script team to discuss what we might do for our 60th year. It is such a significant milestone to have reached, we felt compelled to mark it with a storyline that would have impact. When I say impact what do I mean? We wanted an event."

    Oh, how tedious and formulaic! Could you really do no better than this? Are we now to expect "an event" each time the 70th, 75th, etc anniversary comes round? Can't you see how shallow and facile this line of thought is?

    What you've done isn't to shake Ambridge to the core - it's to shake The Archers to the core. Ambridge was a place where the listeners were happy to live for a while each day. It isn't now.

    Grace

  • rate this
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    Comment number 38.

    Well, when the response came it was nothing more than we expected. It might as well have been written before the episode was broadcast, before any of the criticism came flooding in. Maybe it was. Anyway, all it does for most of us is confirm the disregard - if not contempt - VW has for her listeners in side-stepping the real issues and ignoring what they have to say.

    So go on - plough on with your dismal storyline and keep telling us how clever and creative you are and how the 60th anniversary "celebrations" have been such a success and how well-written and well-plotted the episodes concerned have been and how unknown wonders will unfold in their wake. I'm sure the ratings will tell a different story.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 39.

    Dear Ms Whitburn

    I read your belated response with deep disappointment. The words 'smug' and 'self-satisfied' kept coming to mind.

    Your message to the many listeners who've posted comments on this website is, essentially, that they've got it wrong. Not an iota of recognition that they represent your customer base and are deeply upset for the most part. Your self-congratulatory tone has simply reinforced my belief that I was right to stop listening and remain an ex-listener.

    You've confirmed my belief that the script writing team are fixated with tragedy, seeing it as the only way to make The Archers interesting. You ignore the plethora of comments already posted on this website highlighting why such tragedies and their aftermath are turning listeners away. Your focus on the number of communications / column inches, etc., rather than their content, is a classic mistake made by so many organisations: any publicity is NOT necessarily good publicity.

    Finally, your defense of the manner in which you informed Graham Seed of his removal from the cast was, I felt, odious in the extreme. You admit that you informed him by telephone: this is a crass and cowardly way of informing a long-serving employee that their contract is to be terminated, and is indicative of weak management. It would be a simple matter to arrange a face-to-face appointment to break the news to him - no excuses.

    The only person to come out of this whole sorry episode with any credibility is Mr Seed himself, who has remained a true gentleman throughout. I wish him every success in the future.

    Sincerely yours

  • rate this
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    Comment number 40.

    Unless this is leading up to a storyline about BSE/nvCJD or ergotism, the sudden character discontinuities suffered by so many of major characters (Helen, Tony, Brian, David, Nigel,...) at such a convenient moment do amount to arbitrary sensationalism and a wilful neglect of the long-term and incremental dynamics existing between the Archers and their long-term audience. These shifts came without continuity or lead-in unless you count the massive hype that you are content to ascribe to the audience in paragraph 4 of your damage control exercise (it seems misleading to call it a response).

    I understand your desire to move the Archers on and to take it into the more competitive world inhabited by overtly sensationalist soaps like those on TV, where I gather you nurtured your editorial judgement and where the really big ratings are to be found. But please be aware that the connection between the show and its long-term supporters is two-way; the writers and the audience combine to make the show what it is. If you wish to venture into this dangerous terrain, you will need that hinterland in order to sustain a viable share, let alone build a durable comunity of interest. The Archers and the medium on which it is propagated are not really fit to survive the savage competition that awaits. The audiences you attract to the show (rather than commenting on the emotions of the listeners) may not find enough to retain their interest - one of the characteristics of these more competitive markets is that it is far easier to attract than to retain audiences.

    You may also wish to reflect on the implications for the Archers as a BBC programme; the direction you have signposted bears few, if any, hallmarks of the type of content that justifies the licence fee - effectively a public resource.

 

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