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Tuesday 1 February 2011, 15:46

Keri Davies Keri Davies Web Producer, The Archers

Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn

The Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn discusses the 60th anniversary storyline with listeners Nicky Hillier and Judy Crebbs.

Keri Davies is an Archers scriptwriter and web producer.


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    Comment number 1.

    I feel Vanessa Whitburn got it very wrong! Many people may not have past comment because, like me they may have felt too angry. Take away a lovely actor and leave us with the likes of Katie, Vicky and Helen, you could have just as well killed her off in childbirth! It doesn't have to be like all the other soaps on TV that I refuse to watch.

    The Archers is and should be more lighthearted there is enough real pain out in the world let us have a little light entertainment.

    I also didn't feel Ms Whitburn wanted to hear what the lady in the interview was saying to her. I believe it is time we were listened to, as we are the ones who can turn the radio off. Or perhaps Ms Whitburn may feel if she wants more drama her talents would be better suited to some of the unrealistic TV soaps!

    Saying to someone who now doesn't listen that what you did worked and it is a complement to the programme that she has been affected by it..... so much so she doesn't listen. Shall we all switch off, would that be seen as a compliment?

    I think the script is often predictable and no less so in this case. It soon became obvious with all the comments made about the banner and all the talk about it what was likely to happen.

    A thought, perhaps we should all stop listening until you bring Nigel back......

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    Comment number 2.

    Ms Whitburn,

    Please just stop this. You NEVER answer any questons even on your own posted blogs. So what is the point?

    If you had been a report of mine in a real world employment situation you would have ceased to be employed. Not only for the opprobrium brought to your product and to senior management of the company, but more to the point the destain displayed to your loyal customer base in public.

    What do you intend to do?

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    Comment number 3.

    Are we the only 2 people left from TA followers... perhaps everyone has just given up.

    Is this the right place to insist they turn back the clock or Ms Whitburn has to go.....

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    Comment number 4.

    NO we are not Miss in vest a gaiter.

    Go to the bottom of the blog home page bottom left, almost buiried, Ms Whitburns last solo effort has around 900 posts to it. It is very active & worth reading but may take some time!

    Thanks for your company - good night - I'm off to the remaining wine and the fire

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    Comment number 5.

    Thanks for that.... enjoy the wine and fire.

    Good night!

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    Comment number 6.

    It could be that some of us are enjoying a pub quiz somewhere else ;)

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    Comment number 7.

    I found the Feedback Archers feature very odd. Ms Williams and Ms Whitburn seemed to be joined at the hip, there was no objective reaction from either of them to the torrent of complaints to this whole sorry business, just a denial of the validity of listeners' views and attempts to patronise. Instead of receiving a proper reaction, we were given the irrelevant visit to the studio to discover about various door bell chimes. Why would badly disillusioned listeners be remotely interested in such peripherals? When will someone admit a very wrong call has been made and actually apologise to listeners?

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    Comment number 8.

    Clearly there is a deliberate refusal to respond to the complaints by listeners.

    I am reminded of David Brent - Ricky Gervais's character in The Office - who despite the obvious contempt of all around him carried on blindly believing himself to be admired.

    No matter how many times Ms Whitburn is told she is at fault, she will continue to say how flattered she is by the attention.

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    Comment number 9.

    I do apologise, my first sentence in post 8 is very ambiguous. (The brain addles late at night). I should have said there was a deliberate refusal by Ms W and Ms W to respond to the listeners' complaints.

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    Comment number 10.

    Having listened to Feedback, I did not get the impression that Ms Whitburn was interested in the opinions expressed. And I did not get the impression that the objections raised (here, in other blogs, on the message boards, in the national press) by the large number of usually loyal listeners (which she merely described as "several") were treated appropriately.

    And this peculiar business of demonstrating doorbells (if this is not in the clip above, it is in the full programme) just made me think of one thing: listening to "The Archers", I've not yet heard a doorbell being sounded. All characters simply walk into the homes of each other, at most you get a knock on the door! Shame really that Feedback spends so much time on irrelevant items, that time could have been used to put Ms. Whitburn a bit more on the spot. Mind you, in those few minutes extra she probably wouldn't have budged from her "I know best" stance.

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    Comment number 11.

    This was posted by Prospero and modded out on the other Archers editor blog.

    In common with many, I felt even more angered and insulted by Vanessa Whitburn’s complete failure to address the real issues in the Feedback programme. And I don’t like being talked down to by someone who clearly thinks she knows more about radio and drama than everyone else. Like Helen above, I have taught journalism to post-graduate students. I have worked in the media for 30 years, including a year as a BBC national network radio producer myself.

    I even lived for a year in Worcestershire (“Borsetshire”) when I was teaching at the BBC’s training centre in Evesham (“Felpisham”). But I have so far written my criticisms here from the viewpoint of a listener, because one needs only to have been a regular listener to have noticed the steady decline in artistic standards over the last few years of The Archers. However, perhaps if the editor won’t listen to her audience, maybe she will take more notice of what fellow professionals have to say – although to be honest I doubt it; I should imagine that her cast and production team had plenty to say about the planned 60th anniversary debacle, but it looks as though she still chose to ignore it.

    As it is of considerable relevance to this thread, here is a partial transcript of what went on in Feedback on 28/01/11 (I think fair use applies here) for those who missed it or would care to mull it over at leisure, together with my comments. I hope the House Rules won’t be used to censor this posting, but if so I shall be posting it elsewhere too.

    Roger Bolton: For many people the big dramatic event across the last few weeks is what’s happened in the Archers and the ill-advised venture onto the roof by Nigel Pargetter. So how shall we describe the reaction? I think probably the Feedback listeners are livid – that’s the only way I can describe them. I mean, for example David Wright calls it “the biggest mistake the organisation has made in its long and distinguised radio history”. David Hewitt, who calls himself a former Archers addict says, “the whole production team should be ashamed of themselves. The Archers and Radio 4 in general has no need for this kind of ham-fisted approach. So do you think, Gwyneth Williams, there should be a police inquiry into the death of Nigel Pargetter?

    Gwyneth Williams: I don’t think so. But I do feel sad. I mean, I have been reading the log very carefully, and I do feel for listeners who feel they’ve lost a friend.

    [GW falls at the first fence - fails to realize that although many of us would rather not have lost Nigel, what we are really concerned about are the issues of endless depressing storylines, poor scriptwriting, needless sensationalism, characters acting out of character, general decline in artistic quality and a complete lack of any sense of celebration of the 60th anniversary. And of course, the treatment of Graham Seed. If after reading all the comments - as she claims she has done - she is still so out of touch with what listeners think, what is the point of going on?]

    RB: Some think it’s a bit cynical, here we are the 60th anniversary of The Archers, right, you need something, a big bang and there’s lots of trills beforehand, which suggests that it’s going to be changed totally, and, well, maybe they weren’t expecting a plane crash, but they thought here is something that’s been summoned out for sensationalist reasons to get on the front pages, it’s not organic, it’s not something that, someone has an illness over a period and dies, somebody falls off a roof – bang! – and this is of the worst sort of sensationalist soap material.

    GW: Well, what I’d say to that is, this is a tremendously successful and rather brilliant creative team under Vanessa Whitburn as editor – the world’s longest-running soap, I mean, what an extraordinary thing.

    [Well, for the first 40 years at least VW wasn't editor. In the last 20 it appears she has presided over a long, slow decline in quality which has brought us to the present low.]

    RB: But is your message therefore that one accidental death is enough in Ambridge for the time being?

    GW: No, I would never put a creative straightjacket around a team

    [Well, in that case as controller you have to accept responsibility for your choice of editor when things go wrong and act accordingly. We shall see.]

    RB: Do you know if you’ve lost any yet? I mean, presumably will you have to wait till you get the RAJAR statistics to know?

    GW: We will, and -

    RB: Because you don’t know yet, do you, because we’ve had people write to us saying, “that’s it, I’m not going to listen any more”.

    GW: I know, I know it’s sad, yes, I hope they’ll come back – come back, Archers fans, come back!

    [I bet she does hope they'll come back, because she knows quite well that the buck stops with her. As a channel controller it's all very well not interfering with the creative decisions of the people making programmes for you, but you do then have to accept ultimate responsibility if they fail to deliver the goods and have the audience switching off in droves. If the RAJAR figures do show a significant drop, then the only course of action for GW is to take VW off the programme and give the responsibility to someone else. If she fails to do this, then she loses all credibility as a controller of the station. Particularly if the figures show a drop in R4 listening in general. The Archers is a cornerstone of R4, and whilst I don't believe it does much to bring new listeners to the network, it does tend to keep them there once they are hooked. There seem to be indications that people are not just switching off TA, but are stopping listening to other R4 programmes as well, instead choosing R7 or just turning off the radio altogether. If this is reflected in the RAJAR figures, it will be (or at least should be) especially worrying for GW. Meanwhile, pleading for listeners to come back while failing to address the real problem isn't going to work, and is more likely to drive away an audience which has already been alienated.]

    Then we have a brief interlude while Feedback discusses other programmes, followed by this:

    RB: . . . beef-eating fans of Wolfgang Amadeus will be livid about John Staples’s criticism, but their indignation will almost certainly pale into insignificance compared with that of the fans of the Pargetter family of Ambridge. We’ve had more emails on the sudden death of Nigel – exit, pursued by a slate – than anything else in a long time. Around 200 in fact, and that’s on top of the 613 complaints directly to The Archers team, and the deafening buzz in the Twittersphere. If The Archers’ editor Vanessa Whitburn wanted to win headlines on the serial’s 60th birthday, she certainly succeeded. The trouble is, she seems to be in danger of losing listeners. One of them is Nicki Hillier. “Never again,” she says, “will The Archers’ signature tune be heard” in her household. We paired her up with Judy Crebbs, a lifelong fan, and despatched them both to Ambridge to see if it really was all over between Nicki and the soap.

    [skip forward past the studio visit, where the production team has used Feedback's request for some hard answers as an excuse to indulge in a fluff piece which won't go one iota towards placating irate listeners, and if anything is like to anger them even more. . .]

    . . . we headed for the office of Vanessa Whitburn, The Archers Editor, where Nicki got straight to the point.

    Nicki Hillier: I’ve listened to The Archers for 53 years, and I found the 60th anniversary episode insulting to listeners’ intelligence with the weak storylines, the unbelievable script. I thought the acting was poor. I know that there are people who – hundreds of thousands of people – who feel that you have got this badly wrong, and quite frankly want an apology. You’ve lost me and, I know, many, many thousands of people as listeners.

    [To be fair, I don't think the acting was poor, although the result certainly was. The actors had to do the best they could with the material they had, and as we know you can't make silk purses from sows' ears. But the rest of NH's criticism pretty much echoes what most of us feel.]

    Vanessa Whitburn: Yes, obviously that does affect me, you know, I’m sorry about that – I hope that you will continue to listen. I can’t control that, but I hope that you will.

    [Here we go - she's already in evasionary denial mode. She uses the classic ploy of saying "I'm sorry about that. . .", which expresses sympathy, rather than "I'm sorry FOR that. . .", which accepts blame. And yes, she hopes we'll continue to listen, because if we don't her job might be on the line.]

    VW: I have to disagree with you about whether it’s good drama and whether it’s well-acted, because I think there is a different issue about, whether it’s been a storyline twist that you personally and several other listeners wouldn’t like, and whether it’s well-acted and well done. I think the scripts were good, I think it was well-acted, I don’t really want to get hung-up on that.

    [No, we already know you don't want to tackle the real issues. You just want to disagree with us, because you think you are right and we are wrong. And "several" other listeners - PUH-LEEZE! More like several hundred thousand. As far as the scripts being good is concerned, the R4 audience is in general erudite and discerning. Many of us are writers and media professionals ourselves. We have seen countless eloquently expressed critical comments here and elsewhere, from published writers and academics such as Marie Noakes, respected media critics and others. But you don't need to be professionally experienced or academically qualified to know how bad this really was. A dead haddock could spot how lame and unbelievable the drama and characterisation were, and pretending anything else just makes you look silly. A little humility and a thorough study of Aristotle's "Poetics" might be in order.]

    VW: But whether we should have done it to mark the anniversary is a worthwhile debate.

    [Oh, so by implication the opinions of thousands of listeners who don't agree with you are not worth debating?]

    VW: And, I didn’t do it – we didn’t do it as a team -

    [Yes, Vanessa, YOU didn't (or rather, did) do it - it's obvious who calls the tune in your production team, only once you realised you had admitted it here you were quick to change your words to cover up the gaff, in the same way as you did when you let the cat out of the bag on the Today programme.]

    VW: . . . to celebrate the anniversary, which some of the press have said we did. We did it to mark the anniversary.

    [As others have pointed out, the whole of The Archers web site has "Celebrating 60 Years" trumpeted all over it. Disingenuous, or what?]

    VW: And I just think that of course it’s been traumatic, and in a funny kind of way what you’re saying to me is a compliment to the programme, because yes, it’s affected you – drama should do that.

    [A truly astounding display of arrogance and denial. Many things should affect me. Food affects me, so if I go to a restaurant and the food makes me ill, I suppose the chef should take that as a compliment? Am I likely to go back, or will I stay away?]

    NH [sounding angry now]: It has not been easy to say, “I’m no longer listening to this”. I’ve almost felt grief stopping listening to it, that Ambridge is no longer the place I used to visit. Ambridge is full of caricatures of people, in Jazzer, as in Julie. There’s constant outpourings of grief and angst, we’ve had Jolene – I cease to care, and I never, ever, ever thought that I would live to say that about The Archers and about Ambridge.

    VW: I’m really sorry you feel that way.

    [Same tactic again. Not, "I'm really sorry I MADE you feel that way," which is rather different. No - no sign of any real apology here.]

    VW: I would ask you to give it another go. Maybe you will at some point. I mean, the fact is that not everybody agrees with you, I mean we do have people who say that the acting is brilliant, that the characters are brilliant at the moment, but that in a way we could discuss that on and on, you know. In the end, if it chimes with you, you’ll come back to us. So, all I can say is we’re very sorry to lose you. Come back, after a break, maybe.

    [How many don't agree? How many do? How many say that it's brilliant? Let's have some figures, Vanessa. Maybe it's only you. Maybe even the rest of your production team themselves think it's a crock of brown stuff. Have you asked them? Maybe they're too scared to tell you. It will be interesting to see if in the months leading up to the publication of the relevant RAJAR figures, any of the cast or crew feel sufficiently disenchanted with the situation to break ranks and tell us what they really think.]

    . . . But some people felt, where did this come from, was there pressure from BBC management to push something sensational for the 60th anniversary?

    VW: Not at all. This story was evolved in the same way as we evolve all our stories – in huge discussion over considerable time. It’s our job to look at the drama and decide what we’re going to do.

    [I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that discussion. I bet VW had already made her mind up to get rid of Nigel, and any "discussion" consisted only of her going through the motions of trying to convince the rest of the team that it was a good idea, and force it through regardless of what they thought. I'm sure Margaret Thatcher would be proud of her.]

    VW: We don’t think it would be an easy story. Some people have said, “Oh, but they wouldn’t have gone onto the roof, they’d have sent somebody to do it” – that’s the point in a way, this is all about human beings who sometimes make errors, and, you know, accidents happen in a split second. And, this was a foolish thing in the best sense of the word.

    [Yes, Vanessa, human beings do make errors, and we look forward to your admitting the big one you've made here.]

    NH: Did you make a bit of an accident on the Today programme, with giving away what happened, was that a foolish thing?

    I did, and the irony is that I was the one who said let’s just hold onto this mystery for another few hours. Well, you know, I have paid – they made mincemeat of me, didn’t they, and I very sorry about that error, but I did make a mistake.

    [OK - admit the easy bit, the bit you can't really deny, and hope it takes the heat off.]

    NH: When John was killed-off we knew it was because John the person wanted to leave, but we never knew that Nigel did, and that’s why a lot of us feel so strongly that it shouldn’t have been him.

    VW: Yes, I’m sure actors don’t want to leave this programme, but all actors will tell you that no job is a job for life necessarily, and you cannot actually ask of a group of creative writers, a production team to always say that a character that’s been created by them will, per se, go on forever.

    [No, but it would be sensible to take the expectations of the audience into account. I'd be the first to say Nigel's character could have done with a re-vamp, but as some have suggested there were other ways of doing this. Even if we believed all that up-on-the-roof nonsense, we could have ended up with Nigel in a wheelchair, which would have opened up a fantastic range of possibilities for future drama, both uplifting and heart-rending. The fact that the production team didn't come up with this or any other of the countless possibilities that could have been explored for the 60th anniversary episodes reveals either a complete lack of imagination, or that somebody had already made up their mind that for whatever reason, Nigel had to go.]

    So, I expect that having run the gauntlet of Feedback and swatted away the criticism again, VW will be indulging in another round of self-congratulation now. What she probably doesn’t realise is that if things seem to have quietened down a little in the wake of her appearance it’s not that we’re happy with her response. Rather, we have come to terms with the fact that nobody is really going to address our criticisms properly, and if anything this makes us less likely than ever to return to the programme.

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    Comment number 12.

    Ha ha! Great minds etc. I'd just suggested on Ms Whitburn's earlier offering that Prospero's analysis would fit in here. An excellent analysis it is.

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    Comment number 13.

    Vanessa Whitburn will undoubtedly be aware that many thousands of listeners remain very angry about the crude manipulation of storylines in The Archers to meet some 60th anniversary agenda.

    In BBC’s Feedback last week, Whitburn commented that she had never said that the anniversary would be a 'celebration', merely that it would be 'marked'; she commented that the 'celebration' had been 'invented by the media'. This is manifestly untrue and her comments are disingenuous. The word 'celebrating' has been used extensively on the BBC's website for the programme. Indeed, the logo used extensively throughout the website actually states 'The Archers. Celebrating 60 years' .

    Except, that is, on the header for The Archers blog from whence it has now been deleted..... Although it is still present on the Radio 4 blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/vanessa_whitburn/ .

    Whitburn needs to acknowledge that, by her actions, she has not only irrevocably damaged a cherished national icon but, in doing so, has also caused real and unnecessary grief to thousands of previously loyal listeners. Her apology and a resolution of this unacceptable situation is long overdue – why can she not admit that she was wrong to have done what she did?

    Truly this was her 'Ratner moment'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Well she didn't say one birth one death on the Today programme and she didn't say it would be a celebration did she?


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    Comment number 15.

    An excellent analysis by Prospero.
    My feelings of anger and being patronised had died down until they were re-ignited by the Feedback fiasco.

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    Comment number 16.

    Feedback stated the following:

    "We’ve had more emails on the sudden death of Nigel than anything else in a long time. Around 200 in fact, and that’s on top of the 613 complaints directly to The Archers team, and the deafening buzz in the Twittersphere. If The Archers’ editor Vanessa Whitburn wanted to win headlines on the serial’s 60th birthday, she certainly succeeded. The trouble is, she seems to be in danger of losing listeners."

    This is a really big deal! It is not just a few of us that are angry, it is the highest complaints count in Feedback's history. We have been posting and complaining wherever possible since 2nd Jan and it is now 2nd Feb and it does not seem to be dying down either.

    Are you not a little bit embarrassed Vanessa? Shame on you! You could easily get a job in TV or another radio show as your time surely is up on The Archers. Loads of us have stopped listening to it and will not come back until you leave. We are not just random people, we are the sort of fans who have listened all our lives, join Archers Addicts and contribute via these web pages.

    Is it fair that one person i.e. Vanessa Whitburn should stay in her position when a whole bunch of us have had to change our habits-of-a-lifetime because of her ill conceived decisions?

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    Comment number 17.

    I listened to 'Feedback' on Sunday evening and was absolutely aghast at the arrogance of VW, simply dismissing and side-stepping every criticism that was levelled at her. She's not going without a fight!

    Vanessa Whitburn - The Mubarak of Borsetshire!

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    Comment number 18.

    Re posting 11.
    What an excellent, cogent, well-argued analysis of the Feedback programme. Surely this, together with the hundreds and hundreds of other comments on the 60th Anniversary fiasco and general decline over recent months in the quality of TA under VW’s leadership, should make VW’s seniors at the BBC sit up and think very carefully about TA’s future direction.
    I look forward to learning the RAJAR figures. I am yet another long-term listener to TA who now does not listen to it.

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    Comment number 19.

    Ms Whitburn. This goes on and on - when is it going to stop? A huge mistake is being made by you and others at the BBC in your patronising refusal to acknowledge the many complaints. You are dealing with intelligent Radio 4 listeners. Posting 11 demonstrates that - a hugely eloquent and intelligent blog which echoes what so many of us feel. We are not going away.

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    Comment number 20.

    Gold star to Prospero and Rumble.
    Falling on deaf ears I fear.
    It's a miserable state of affairs.


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