What I’ve learned about The Archers
Scriptwriter, The Archers
Archers scriptwriter Joanna Toye has recently written (with Karen Farrington) a new book The Ambridge Chronicles. Jo has already written seven previous books based on The Archers – five novelisations, an encyclopaedia and a miscellany. Was there really anything new she could discover about The Archers?
It’s like everything else. The more you know, or think you know, the more there is to know.
I’d pretty much exhausted everything that even The Archers’ notorious archive has to offer. Surely the huge, headline-grabbing stories had been told and retold so many times there was no fresh angle on them? Was there any new way to revisit the numerous outbreaks of TB at Brookfield? Let alone Brian’s affairs? Let alone the death of Grace??
Well, yes, actually, for two reasons. Firstly I knew I didn’t just remember all these events as narratives, but as snatches – sometimes pretty long snatches – of actual dialogue. And I had a hunch from talking to listeners – and reading postings on this website – that I wasn’t alone.
Secondly, there isn’t just one Archers archive. It’s a split personality, spread across the card index and computer system at our Birmingham base and an even more mind-boggling resource. At the BBC’s Written Archives Centre in Reading, every Archers script since 1 January 1951 is preserved on microfilm. Every single script. Every single word of dialogue.
So that became the challenge. Go back to the stories – 63 years’ worth – and, where it was appropriate, revisit them using actual dialogue. But where to begin? I knew I didn’t want to retell just the big events because The Archers is much more than that. Some of its real treasures are the seemingly incidental, even trivial, moments which add colour, warmth and humour – all of which go to make up the complete world that is Ambridge.
And then there were the nagging questions which had bugged me over the years and to which I needed answers.
Q. Was the programme really full of farming propaganda in the 50s?
A. There’s a fair bit.
Q. Had I imagined it or did Phil and Jill’s marriage really come under strain, not once but twice?
A Oh yes!
Q. Is Brian really as bad as he’s painted – in life and in love?
A. The jury’s still out.
Q. Could I track down a scene I remembered not even for its dialogue but its (as yet) unsurpassed writerly description of a sound effect?
(SOFT EXPLOSION, AS OF SOMEONE THROWING UP INTO A BOWL OF RICE KRISPIES)
Joanna Toye is an Archers scriptwriter and former senior producer