The Archers and MERL - A 60 Year Celebration
2011, The Archers' 60th year on air. It's quite a landmark. Not only was the series to become the world's longest running radio serial, but the launch coincided with the beginning of years of change for rural life in Britain. It was these changes that prompted the opening of The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), in the same year as The Archers launch.
Backtrack to 1951. The UK, on the fringe of Europe, was still recovering from war, and facing major food production problems. The Government of the day was keen for the press and broadcasters to educate farmers in the latest techniques for increasing food output. The BBC's response was timid and dull, initially just broadcasting simple straightforward talks and discussions. However, it was not long before more exciting formats were trialled.
Paul Brassley, Senior Research Fellow in Politics at The University of Exeter, explains the backdrop to the creation of The Archers.
"What we wanted was a farming Dick Barton!"
The launch of The Archers did not result in a complete change of direction for agricultural broadcasting. There was still a need for straightforward instruction on new methods of farming, the market reports and the weather. Clare Griffiths, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield has examined the package of information available to the post war farmer. From magazines to television, offerings were limited.
"In the 1920's, the BBC had little interest in offering farming to an urban audience"
Making programmes aimed exclusively at farmers was not to last long. Farming was changing rapidly, audiences were expecting more. But with this sudden thrust of progress came a sense of a need to look back, take stock and not forget farming roots. It is from here that the story of The Museum for English Rural Life at Reading begins. Ollie Douglas is Assistant Curator at the museum.
"Both the Museum and The Archers feel much more contemporary these days"
Where the Museum of English Rural Life looks both to the past and the future for its inspiration, so too does The Archers. Archers Scriptwriter and Agricultural Story Editor, Graham Harvey, explains how the process of making an Archers episode has changed, and what 21st century audiences demand.
"The farming stories are embedded in the overall drama"
Can we define this modern Archers audience more closely? Broadly middle class, they demand high production values, and are keen to enter into debate about the programme, unlike other serials. Professor Lyn Thomas at London Metropolitan University has been studying precisely what an Archers listener is.
"The fans want it to be a cut above the television soap operas"
Jointly celebrating 60 years of The Museum of English Rural Life and The Archers has given the museum’s curators an opportunity to illustrate vividly key aspects of the world’s longest running radio serial. Doing this has also added new layers of understanding to the story of MERL itself, according to Mark Mason, Guest Curator for the 60th year celebrations.
"There was great demand for the cast to be seen out signing autographs"
Appealing to the widest audience is a key aim of the celebration of 60 years of MERL and The Archers. MERL Learning Manager Bekky Moran explains that you need not be a typical Archers fan, or an enthusiast of English rural life to get something out of the exhibition.
"Rural life links to everyday life in many different ways, which are interesting, relevant and fun!"