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What I learned about The Archers

Keri Davies Keri Davies | 12:03 PM, Saturday, 5 March 2011

Archers scriptwriter Simon Frith spent much of last year working through 60 years of Archers storylines while researching the book The Archers Archives, which was published to mark our 60th anniversary. We asked Simon what had surprised him about his travels in Ambridge's past.

For many UK baby boomers like myself, The Archers was as much as a part of our childhood as The Beano and sherbet fountains. It was just there, a constant and reliable background, with familiar domestic rituals organised around the twice-daily theme tune.

But it's the cosy domestic scenes rather than the big stories that seem to have stuck in my mind - Dan and Doris fretting over their family and livestock, Walter Gabriel's dogged courtship of the disapproving Mrs P. So when I came to do my detailed research of these first decades it came as something of a revelation to discover just how much I'd missed.

A quick look at Ambridge's crime statistics in the 1950s and 60s illustrates what a surprisingly lively place it was during those early years. The fifties began with a violent brawl outside the Bull which resulted in the death of village ne'er-do-well turned industrial saboteur Bill Slater.

The following years saw two more serious bouts of fisticuffs, two cases of gang violence (during one of which a leather-jacketed biker was bitten by Walter Gabriel's dog Butch), several cases of arson and petty vandalism, and one attempted blackmail.

If the village policeman wasn't already busy enough, in 1957 he had a more serious case on his hands when keeper Tom Forrest was arrested for killing poacher Bob Larkin and was lucky to escape a manslaughter charge.


Colourful characters

The village also played host to a number of colourful characters with mysterious pasts, who popped up from time to time. Thriller writer Mike Daley turned out to be an ex-wartime hero with links to the secret service. Valerie Grayson (later to become Mrs Valerie Woolley) was also a former secret agent, posing as his fiancée.

Then there was Charles Grenville's nosey housekeeper Madame Garonne, whom the Borchester Echo exposed as an international diamond smuggler. And perhaps rather more harmless, the eccentric Lady Hyleberrow who befriended Christine and threatened to take her away to Ethiopia.

Also surprising were some of the domestic details that came to light. Other long-standing listeners may remember that the first Dan Archer, played by Harry Oakes, made use of his fine bass-baritone voice to sing duets with Doris for the entertainment of their guests - including, on one occasion, Phil's girlfriend Grace Fairbrother. Not to be outdone, Walter Gabriel would liven up any party with a tune on his euphonium, while it was Tom Forrest's early weakness for custard creams that contributed to him becoming stout in his later years.


Continuity

But apart from these intriguing odds and ends, what came through above all was a strong and reassuring sense of continuity between the programme as it was then, and as it is now. While it's true that by comparison current storylines are firmly grounded in reality, and often grittier, there's still the sense of lives being lived out in real time and of the generations moving on in step with the slowly evolving routine of farming and village life.

As Dan and Doris fretted about the love-lives of their children back in the fifties, so Phil and Jill in turn worried about Shula and Elizabeth's various unsuitable boyfriends twenty-five years later. And now at the start of a new century we've seen David and Ruth agonising over Pip's disastrous affair with the flaky Jude.

Peggy - who was heard in the very first episode as the young, long-suffering wife of the family black sheep - has watched her son Tony mature from a reckless youth in a sports car into a proudly doting grandfather, while she herself has survived many trials over two marriages to become the undisputed family matriarch.

Only "The Archers" could achieve this kind of continuous and constantly engaging story-telling over such a time-scale. Doubtless it's part of the secret that's kept a loyal audience listening over the last 60 years, and - we'd like to assume - will continue to do so well into the future.


Simon Frith is an Archers scriptwriter and co-author (with Chris Arnot) of The Archers Archives.

  • Picture shows Simon Frith
  • Discover 60 years of Archers storylines with our timeline, which includes archive images and audio clips
  • Or browse the storylines in more detail in our Six Diamond Decades articles


Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "Doubtless it's part of the secret that's kept a loyal audience listening over the last 60 years, and - we'd like to assume - will continue to do so well into the future."

    You cannot assume this sort of loyalty from your audience any longer after the Nigel debacle and the ridiculous epiphany of Helen and her baby spreading light and joy to all behold her and the baby Cheesus. Better writing in the future may possible win back all those formerly loyal members of the audience who are thoroughly fed up with the poor quality of the writing in recent times.

  • Comment number 2.

    Looking back at some of the preposterous storylines from the past that Simon Frith has mentioned, the current crop seem remarkably tame by comparison!

  • Comment number 3.

    Crikey! Does the TA team have NO shame at all? Brazen self-congratulation after the longest running car crash in TA's history, and I do not meen the fall off the roof.

    The dissastisfaction with the SLs / writing has gatg hered pace over the last two years and the Jan 2nd debacle merely focusd and intensified that resentment. To now present that as an honourable legacy is blatant re-writing of what the loyal listeners KNOW to be the real truth.

    Boy, you guys have some infernal cheek.

  • Comment number 4.

    Some great rollicking plot lines there, but nowhere in the above do I see any mention of three major characters being killed off in the space of a single year. How on earth did TA manage to survive so long without the traumatic events we have been told are so necessary to the generation of good drama?

 

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