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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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    It's still a mystery to me why AMBRIDGE was supposed to be shaken to the core. And Ms Whitburn reinforced the policy document by adding that 'Ambridge would never be the same again'.

    The Archers family is certainly shaken (with the exception of the Bridge Farm family on its own separate cloud), but Ambridge? I think not.

    So why say so? If the policy document was poorly worded, why reinforce it with your own comment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    What a total crock of ...

    well I won't go on or else I will be moderated.

    I think this reaction confirms what 90 percent of us already knew. That you Miss W, have no idea what your listeners want, what they are saying or even who they are - and more to the point you simply don't care. As someone pointed out on another board the listeners appear to have become something of a nuisance and are getting in the way of the arrogant decisions you make about the story.

    Read the now thousands of negative comments. This is not a reason for you to say oh look aren't I clever I really caused a stir. Gerald Ratner caused a stir when he described his product as cr*p.

    This is your Ratner moment. You may have shaken things up but for the most part you have shaken your show to death.

    Now moderate me. But you cannot change how nearly everyone here feels.

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    Comment number 43.

    Absolutely. Arrogant and bullying, what a shame to be perceived this way. I'm sorry that surviving her own horrific ordeal hasn't helped her to understand how much more powerful the fight back to health would have been.

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    Comment number 44.

    Bah humbug. You clearly haven't read/listened to any of the comments posted by regular listeners, or rather, you probably have, but in the time-honoured, arrogant, 'we know best' BBC tradition, you have chosen to ignore them. How typically (but unsurprisingly) smug of you.

    I've stopped listening to The Archers since Nigel's death. It was remarkably easy to do since the stories have been growing ever more dreary, depressing and tedious.

    Please Ms Whitburn, take yourself off to Albert Square, I'm sure it's what you want and we'll all be so much happier as a result.

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    Comment number 45.

    It's mostly been said by others now. It was a very disappointing episode that was never likely to live up to the hype. The SATTC phrase was not in an obscure BBC policy document - it was in the BBC's own press release about its annual Statements of Programme Policy. If something is released to the press and published on the internet, it is not going to remain in obscurity. That phrase was obviously chosen to stir up public interest and the production team had already set to work to telescope the Helen pregnancy storyline so she could give birth in the 60th anniversary episode. The fact that this made the storyline completely unrealistic seems to have been considered irrelevant. Your own blog entry seems to assume that if everyone is talking about The Archers, that's all that matters - regardless of what they are saying. As one of my fellow messageboarders said some days ago, on that basis Stalin and Hitler were the most popular people on the planet in the 20th century!

    10.5 months elapsed from Helen first thinking about having a baby alone (she announced it to the family on 17th February) to the birth. The so-called screening from the clinic was superficial and did not seem to include getting information from Helen's GP. At no point did the counsellor consider Helen's spell as an in-patient in an eating disorders clinic. Then not only was she cleared to have AI but she was catapulted to the top of the queue and became pregnant at the first attempt. This is not a storyline I would ever have warmed to but I can see how it could have been an interesting one, if it had been done over a realistic period, and if more weight had been given to the objections from family and friends. As it is, suspension of disbelief has been impossible because the storyline has borne so little relation to reality.

    The final straw was having Helen rushed to hospital for a caesarean without getting the medical details of pre-eclampsia right. Characters kept saying that Helen and the baby could die. If she had had full-blown eclampsia, yes, but she didn't, judging by what we were being told about her symptoms. And if she had had eclampsia, the danger would have continued after delivery - but that wouldn't have suited the plot, so that inconvenient detail was also ignored.

    As for Nigel and David on the roof - it's all been said. Preposterous. Out of character for both men, and telegraphed for days and days in advance. We have lost a sunny, decent character like Nigel who would have been tremendous asset to the programme as he grew older for the sake of the third bereavement story in under a year.

    Why couldn't we have had a genuinely happy, believable story to celebrate the 60th anniversary? I made one suggestion here but there have been plenty of others:


  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I've already posted this in the thread Tayler has started in DTA over on the messageboard, but I'm repeating it here to be be more sure that it will actually be read.

    Ms Whitburn, any thoughts on the (quite literaly) hundreds of posts on here, the messageboards, Archers Addicts, Twitter and Facebook, as well as the comments sections on articles in various newspapers, by listeners saying they are so dismayed (to put it mildly) over what has happened/is going to happen in Ambridge, that they feel no inclination whatsoever to carry on listening?

    I'm not one of them btw but I sincerely hope that the 70th anniversary, if there is one, doesn't see a repeat performance of this one.

    Btw, I'm a huge fan of David, he is my very most favourite character (though I'm not blind to his faults, but then no one is perfect), and as I've posted in Mary Cutler's Blog thread on here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/NF2693940?thread=7979867&skip=250#p104939050), I simply don't believe he would have behaved in this way. And even if he had because of a drink-fuelled temporary loss of his senses, Nigel wouldn't have given in to him.

    The Helen story is imo stupefying in its sheer implausibility.


  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Well, of course you are of the opinion that you know better than the mere listeners - as if we expected you to say anything else.
    You can't possibly have read the comments on this blog, or if you have will have discounted most of them as being from long-time listeners, and therefore presumably from old people whose opinions don't matter as they probably won't be around for the next twenty years. I suppose you think you'll drag the next generation away from TV soaps by sensationalising Ambridge!

    Such a pity we couldn't have celebrated the 60years, or maybe sudden death is a celebration in your book? Or maybe celebrations are measured in column inches? No such thing as bad publicity, eh? Well there is such a thing as a bad idea, and this plotline is a very bad idea.

    The Archers used to be character led, but in recent years so many people have been obliged to act out of character that we are no longer able to 'lose ourselves' in Ambridge life. Instead of picturing old friends all we 'see' is a group of actors (who look nothing like the Ambridge villagers in our heads - please stop publishing pictures of them!) just standing around a microphone reading from scripts.
    You have stolen The Archers from us and will never be forgiven.

    I won't be around for the next ten years - not if you have planned a decade of family feuds and disputes. I haven't managed more than a couple of minutes of any of this week's programmes, and switching on at 7pm is a habit easily lost
    For the few minutes I have tuned in to TA this week there has either been misery from one side of the family, or adoration of the madonna and child from the other. I've never known childbirth bring about such a transformation!
    And has that self-obsessed madam apologised yet for the way she treated her father?

    Sunday mornings at 10am? - I've a nice audiobook to listen to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I'm told that you once referred to 'the wrong sort of listeners'. Can you remember saying this, and when, and if so, can you tell us what a 'wrong sort of listener' does? I think I may be in danger of becoming one, because, by the time Monday's episode was aired, I'd rather have had the 'relief' of knowing that Nigel was OK and the sadness that Helen was about to spend weeks in intensive care, following a relapse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    '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'm afraid you have chosen to interpret the constant discussions, post accident, in a bizarre, flattering light, you are patently in denial. The story line did not 'capture our imagination', it horrified us because it highlighted the LACK of imagination of the script writing team. They - you - fell into the age-old trap that teenagers all fall into when they are given their first piece of improvisation. They feel that they have to make the audience laugh, cry or be shocked and, consequently, their efforts look sensationalised, contrived, clumsy and usually boring. Do you recognise any of these terms? These terms have all been applied to the current storyline - in fact, it is no better than a Year 9 school effort. Shame on you! We, the listeners, deserve better than this.

    There was no emotional reunion between Helen and Tony - simply words. Tony said "I still can't take it in! only seconds after he was first told! Briefly, just in case I haven't made my point, there was NO REALISM in the script, just sensationalised tosh.

    I would expect to receive it from a Year 9 pupil - I would NOT expect it from a GCSE student and it's shameful to be on the receiving end from professional scriptwriters. No more listening for me I'm afraid - the standard of writing is not good enough.

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    Comment number 50.

    Dear Miss or Mrs Whitburn,

    Your account of how things were simply does not address the points raised over the past few days by hundreds and hundreds of listeners, and particularly not the central ones: disbelief in the story line, poor writing, over-hype and predictability, shabby treatment of an actor and removal of THE original character of the whole cast.

    It is a shame you did not "listen to the question" before attempting an answer. Not much of a surprise, though.

    Reflecting on what has happened, it seems to me that this whole episode has seriously weakened the suspension of disbelief which I previously allowed in my Archers listening. I have now become too aware of the agendae behind and the process of writing and editing the programme to believe any more in the story or in the characters. I don't hear Helen, or Shula, or Jil any more, I just hear somebody reading some lines in a kind of vacuum. Too many issues so obviously introduced just for the sake of it, too many shallow and uninteresting, not to mention unenjoyable, characters (eg Kate), too formulaic, calculating, manipulative...

    A book has to hold ones attention, though good plot and good writing. So does the Archers. Poor plot, poor writing... one is inclined to put the book down. I'm not interested in the production team's agenda; I wanted something entertaining to enjoy. Credible plot includes pain and tragedy, but in this case the whole thing was incredible; it just did not work. And we are robbed of an excellent character.

    I feel a sense of loss, but even more I am ANGRY at being so badly treated by you and your team. I wish you would address all those who have posted similarly, who clearly outnumber those who support the storyline by a huge majority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Dear Ms Witburn,

    That fact that you appear to take comfort in the level of media interest generated suggests that you have either not read or not understood the criticisms levelled at the programme in general, and you in particular.

    Listeners were hoping for a celebratory 60th Anniversary, but when they opened the gift-wrapped present they found it merely contained a well fermented cow-pat.

    Listeners want to be entertained - not subjected to relentless misery. Why can't the Archers lighten up a bit?

    We realise you have been in post for a very long time now, but have you become so fixed in your ways that you are no longer open to alternative suggestions?

    More death, more misery, more family feuds. It's very stale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Dear Vanessa,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to us, however we, the listeners, or rather ex-listeners of the Archers, want something completely different to what you keep throwing at us.
    We want Nigel back - it's that simple. The fact that you felt a death of a loved character, which destroyed families, friendships and relationships, was an appropriate way to celebrate an anniversary of a wonderful (or rather, was wonderful) series is unfathomable, fictional though it may be.
    You do not seem to have understood our requests. We don't listen (or didn't listen) to the Archers for plots similar to those in the TV soap operas, we listen because it's different.
    Please reconsider what you have said, and your actions which you will take in reference to what your listeners want.
    I will not be listening again, simply because of a brutal plot which was un-characteristic, even though you say it was not, and the disgusting way in which you have destroyed a series for me and for many listeners. Personally, I do not want to listen to grief, anguish, suffering - it feels too personal. I have to say I am heartbroken, having lost a character, Pip, whom I have grown up alongside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Vanessa - I am another who feels that the 2nd Jan episode was poorly conceived, had people behaving out of character, and was deeply disappointing. I accept there are a range of views on this.

    What I found most dishonest in your response was this:

    "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 don't think anyone described the converstaion as "quick and careless". The issue I saw people commenting about was that it was done by phone at all. I believe it is quite easy to travel between Birmingham and London these days.

    As to the timing - well, most of us don't know when "studio" was, we took the information from Graham who said he was phoned in November, which you don't contradict. So he had 2 months notice of a storyline which you had decided on at least several months before that.

    So I don't see in what way your version of how he was told, compared to what people were complaining about, justifies your statement "nothing could be further from the truth".

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Here's someone else who still feels that there was no SATTC. It's not that a much-loved character has 'died', it's how it was done in terms of lack of logical reason. It seems that the character of Nigel was written out for no other reason than sensationalism, in a manner more suited to Coronation Street or East Enders which is utterly out of character for The Archers. Add to that the completely obvious nature of the episode - not so much hints that Nigel was going to die, more glowing neon arrows, six feet long, pointing to his head, captioned 'HE'S GOING TO DIE!' Add to that the complete reversal of characterisations so that the denizens of Ambridge somehow start acting completely against usual characterisations in order to complete that sensationalist plot line. That, Ms Whitburn, is what is tee'ing off listeners of long-standing. We're not stupid, as much as it is made out we are, nor are we the wrong sort of listener and we can realise when we've been sold a dud storyline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Very dismissive response from someone who seem to be a real madame!
    How out of touch with your own listeners can you possibly be?! TA is developing in the wrong direction : too many "issues", too many controlling women, weak men, weeping widows, unlikely turns of event, teenage angst ad nauseam, etc ... as for the whole Nigel SL, words fail me! You should nurture and develop TA, not destroy it for the sake of ratings and a mythical "younger" audience. Your whole attitude is disheartening, including today's response.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    So you think the fact that nearly everyone hates what you have done is a good thing?

    You are proud of having alienated your listeners?

    You regard it as a success to be told you have destroyed the Archers for so many of us?

    Just how big is your ego?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    You write: "We felt that the event had to be deeply traumatic".

    I think this says it all.

    You clearly don't understand 'entertainment'. It's time for a change....

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    One of things which consistently infuriates TA listeners is the complete inability of the Editor to acknowledge when a mistake has been made or that someone else might have a valid point of view. The above self justifying response from Ms Whitburn simply confirms this.

    Would it never dawn upon you, Madam, that in the midst of all the criticism levelled at the 60th anniversary episode there might be something you should take on board? After all, we should all be constantly reflecting and learning on what we do, should we not? Yet you persist in appearing both immune to criticism and incapable of reflection. There has been a great deal of intelligent objection to the 60th anniversary episode, but nowhere is that acknowledged nor the valid content of it taken on board. Instead - in the manner of Marie Antoinette exhorting the peasants to eat cake - we are told to keep listening. But why on earth would we?

    I don't especially mind that 'poor Nigel' was killed off. I don't object to Helen having a child on her own. But I do object to shoddy writing, inane plotting and cardboard characterisation. TA isn't Shakespeare, but there's nothing wrong with aspiring towards doing better. Until the programme is run by someone who patently wants to improve, I won't be listening to it. After nearly 20 years of being an avid fan, this was the first week I didn't listen to an episode.I suspect I'm not the only one.

    When all the twittering and the comment subsides, your core audience will have shrunken quite a bit. That'll make for an interesting conversation with your bosses, who do seem to have noticed that something is rotten in the state of Borsetshire...

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I enjoyed last Sunday's episode. The slightly absurd events leading to the death of Nigel left me feeling both shocked and sad, and the tension and sense of relief around Helen's delivery, all worked well I thought. I do regret the hype and marketing of much of modern day media and it's a pity that The Archers and the BBC, in general, are no exception to this. Despite my reservations, I think the episodes this week have been well written and acted. As long as The Archers manages to keep the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary, I will continue to be a listener. Just don't overdo the shaking; I don't think I could cope with much more of that and the response to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    "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."

    This is wexactly what we do not want. How can we make it any clearer? Have you actually read any of the very many comments stating how utterly disappointed the majority is with you and what you have done? Now to compound that with this arrogance. Unbelievable.

    And my apologies for being rather blunt, but we have tried polite and respectful and it has had no effect whatsoever.


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