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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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    Comment number 1.

    Finally you have replied Vanessa!!
    Have you actually read the posts here and the articles in other media???
    We want a re-write and Nigel brought back, The Archers is now depressing and just like Eastenders so people have switched off, is that what you want?

    Your answer isn't good enough really, can you please resign now.

    Thanks

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    Comment number 2.

    No reference to your blurting out the spoiler and then trying to pretend you hadn't on the Today programme then, Vanessa!

    Well, we all make mistakes. Like killing Nigel and letting Helen go for AI.

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    Comment number 3.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thank you for helping me to discover Cerys Matthews on Radoio 6 - 10:00am to Midday Sunday. It was infinitely more enjoyable than your poorly thought out and scripted take on the archers for the 60th anniversary 'bloodbath'.

    My motivation for listening to TA is escapism, pure and simple, and really the death of old friends does not feature in that - goodness knows the increasing number of my friends who have died in real life is more than enough grief for me to handle.

    It is sad when an Archers actor dies or wants to go and has to be written out of the drama but I can accept that. What I cannot accept is the deliberate killing of a long term character just to satisfy *somebodies* agenda.

    It is with deep regret, I will no longer listen until the feelings of the listener are once again the prime concern of the editorial team.

    I also think that your treatment of Graham Seed is totally reprehensible. Why didn’t you just txt him the news?

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    Comment number 5.

    I think that the last week has been excellent and was a most fitting way to mark the 60th anniversary.

    I know that The Archers is not perfect and have complained on the boards in the past about plots that have irritated me, but I hope that I have never been as unbalanced and hysterical in my complaints as those I have read on the message board over the last week. I hope that VW is able to have a good laugh at the nonsense she has read.

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    Comment number 6.

    And what makes you think, dear Editor, that the loyal listeners cannot also see that the real issue of SATTC is about the rewriting of many characters: we are already supposed to accept that Sid was a loveable comedian, that Helen has been visited by a sainthood fairy and has instantly recovered from all her isshooos, that Tony accepts that he was wrong all along and that professor Lloyd now loves, admires and respects his daughter-in-law.
    How many more ridiculous voltes face, and what next?

    You stand accused of lowering The Archers to the basement level of Eastenders. You must be sick as a parrot that you didn't come up with the stolen baby storyline: now that would have really SATTC.
    How do you plead?

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    Comment number 7.

    Sorry Vanessa it felt clumsy and jarring (IMHO). However well the fallout is written and I do trust TA to do grief well the swan dive off the roof was as unbelievable as Tony in a hair shirt. Yes shocking events do happen in real life but not normally requiring a creaking combination of circumstances to make them happen.

    I just don't understand why such a clumsy plot had to be done to give juicy storylines? There are so many dropped plots peppering the Archers that surely the rekindling of a slow burner would have been far more believable and not caused a chunk of your audience to feel that it was melodramatic and issue driven?

    The Helen story line was entirely unbelievable and non balancing to my ear in that episode. Effectively I had worked out who was going to die early on and there was no sense of relief in either direction. There had better be a few more twists in that storyline given how she has been built up with 'issues'

    All in all incrediably disappointing and to me not in the best tradition of the programme

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    Comment number 8.

    Vanessa don't you think that celebrating TA's 60th anniverasry with the death of a core character is rather less 'celebratory' and more akin to cheap sensationalism, closer then to a 'Corrers' or 'Enders' soap than what was once a quality long running rural drama? The greatest damage however, was the opportunity for endless speculation prior to the 'event' after the SATTC announcement far too well in advance... thus removing any real emotional impact or shock.

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    Comment number 9.

    We may be TALKING about it Vanessa, but a lot of us aren't LISTENING to it any more. And as for Graham Seed, this whole sordid episode has shown him to be a consummate professional with an understanding of his listeners which sadly you lack. He didn't NEED to say anything other than 'courteous' because he didn't need to stoop low - he knew that as intelligent people, we would understand his grief and need to remain polite himself.

    The Archers is the only soap I follow. I have dipped in and out of Corrie down the years but since the tram crash will never watch it again.

    You have brought too real a dose of tragedy into the programme, you have ignored the potential for a really gripping storyline dealing with disability (but then you would - Brian's epilepsy never seems to bother him either) and sadly, Ambridge, which thrived on being Not Quite Real, has been forever tainted with the pathetic sensationalism which makes Eastenders so thoroughly miss-able.

    So sorry you have ruined it for us all. Yes Barley, I would like to know how she missed the baby story! But then young babies can so easily be dropped on their way to the incubator... :(

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    Comment number 10.

    Vanessa - with respect, may I ask whether you have any regrets about taking a decision which has distressed and angered so many of us? Sadness at the death of Nigel aside, many of us feel manipulated and let down by a sensationalist engineered storyline, overly hyped, and in no way a 'celebration' in any way at all.

    Are you at all sorry that so many listeners feel alienated? Or are we expendible in the pursuit of younger audiences who prefer Eastenders?

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    Comment number 11.

    Thanks for an eloquent and informative blog post - though I'm sure it won't do anything to quieten the cat-stranglers.

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    Comment number 12.

    Miss Whitburn, I have been a successfully published writer of fiction (including several best-sellers) for the past 35 years, and in the last few months, if not years, I have seen with sadness the writing of The Archers deteriorate, culminating in this 'anniversary episode' which was exceptionally poor. It was very clumsily plotted, with both main storylines awkwardly contrived to bring about the conclusions you wanted, with characters behaving 'out of character', and with trivial dialogue. The only suspense was in wondering whether it would be David, Nigel or both, who went over the edge, since it had been pitifully obvious for days that this was what was going to happen. I could almost find myself chanting the words along with the actors as they spoke.

    The aftermath is little better. Helen's transformation is unbelievable and the inevitable misery following Nigel's death is no incentive to listen. I have not listened since Monday (the episode after the fall) and the sound of David and Kenton's argument was enough to make me feel I did not want to hear any more. I struggled on to the end that evening but have not switched on again.

    It seems to me that you have seriously misjudged both your audience and the spirit of The Archers that kept it going for so long. It is unfortunate that you choose to ignore the opinions of so many. Stories do, of course, continue and it may be that the serial can be rescued when the immediate aftermath has eased, but 'character transformations' and endless misery will not do it.

    A lot of us are very sad; more than that, we feel betrayed. As one person said, The Archers is broken.

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    Comment number 13.

    I am so sad that a chain of events has been set in motion which may well shake some folk to the core but for me spells endless misery, soul-searching and breast beating. I don't want to have to listen to "distraught and guilty" - I have had quite enough of that in my own life not to mention Jolene, Kathy, Jamie and Helen's lives in the last year and I can think of no worse way to start a new year.

    After 60 years you have lost me as a listener and whilst that may not unduly worry you (and why should it, of course) it does worry me that a large part of my entertainment should have been soured for me and I have not listened since 2 January 2011 and do not intend to listen in the future.

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    Comment number 14.

    Incidentally, why did you lie on the Today programme:

    VW: "... a birth and a death..."
    JH: "Ahhh, you've given it away - he died..."
    VW "A birth and a potential death is what I said"

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    Comment number 15.

    Vanessa

    I don't know if you are around to read responses to your pieve (which will I suspect be plentiful) but -

    "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."

    That simply doesn't follow from the premise. As many have suggested here, and elsewhere, why not have Nigel badly injured, perhaps disabled, testing his relationship with Lizzie, his good humour, placing strain on the business and bringing in subjects like disability which the programme hasn't dealt with (I don't count Jack for this purpose - that's slightly different)? Why a death? It just looks sensationalist plotting and lazy thinking.

    "There will be very hard times as a result of what happened on that roof and very touching and supportive times too."

    Yes, just as there have been very recently with Sid's death, and Phil's before that, and going further back, Julia's death, and Betty's (I hope to goodness this isn't used to introduce a male version of Vicky) and John's and as there will be when Jack dies, and others as well in future, of course. Deaths happen and we know they will happen in the The Archers. I don't see the need to create an extra one just for effect. Well rounded, interesting characters like Nigel take years - decades - to mature. There aren't that may of them and once they're gone, they're gone. It's like burning your floorboards in the fireplace: lots of heat and light in the short term, nowhere to live afterwards.

    Disappointed VH

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    Comment number 16.

    Where's the rest of it? Where's the response to the many, many listeners whose complaint is about the quality of the episode? Where's the apology for announcing the death on the Today programme?

    In no way did the 60th compare to the death of John, or some of the other finer moments in Ambridge history. It wouldn't have mattered who had been killed off - the episode was awful on so many counts and did no justice to the programme, the cast or the listeners. And the storylines in the preceding months have been turgid in the extreme.

    You've either completely ducked out of answering the difficult questions with a 'nanny knows best' response or have actually no idea of what your customers want.

    How insulting to be considered of less value than a Tweet.

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    Comment number 17.

    Bring back Nigel!

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    Comment number 18.

    An insuffcient response by Ms Whitburn, as poorly written at the ridiculous over hyped 60th episode. Considering TA has lasted 60 years it deserved better than this.
    Helen would have known all about the symptons of pre-eclampsia given how well read she was on the subject of pregnancy, and David would not has pressured Nigel into going up onto a roof in the dark, much too sensible, busy farmer or not, he has always been hot on health and safety issues. It all felt very implausable.
    Your treatment of Graham Seed was appalling, to basically sack someone by phone who has worked so long on TA shows a complete lack of respect.
    A very disapointing tribute to this highly respected radio soap

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    Comment number 19.

    Please just have the good grace to admit there was a serious error of judgement made and that killing off Nigel in such a bad written way was a mistake. And bring him back!!

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    Comment number 20.

    Vanessa

    I think my complaint about the 60th anniversary episode is that it was far from balanced. Some people like Helen , a very great many on these boards and others I've spoken to who listen but don't visit here find her and the baby plotline irritating and unbelievable, and so her happy news could not balance out the death of Nigel. We now have 3 newly bereaved widows in the village and have lost a character who not only provided light relief but was different from any other. In the tapestry of Ambridge life in my opinion you have pulled out the yellow threads and left us largely with a vista of burnt sienas and muddy ochres.


    I think you have done many excellent story lines over the last decade but increasingly I feel that I am completely out of step with the view of the characters held by the editorial team , those I am meant to find sympathetic I just don't and increasingly there are too many who are depressing or just plain dull.

    I am sure Fabio Capello was much discussed on Twitter and other media after the world cup but it didn't mean to say we had done well.


    That said - give Brian a few more of his sardonic one liners , take Helen down a peg or two and lay off the whinging women for a while and I'm sure I'll buck up. Also if the pressure at Brookfield does unpick a scab and Ruth finally leaves I shall , of course , forgive you everything and agree that the ramifications were worth the candle.

    Best regards
    Joanna Townmouse







 

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