Wednesday 29 Oct 2014
The fictional village of Ambridge, the setting for the world's longest-running radio drama, BBC Radio 4's The Archers, celebrates its 60th birthday on 1 January 2011.
The radio soap opera, broadcast six days a week (Sunday to Friday with an omnibus edition on a Sunday), has around five million listeners.
The rural setting means many of the families portrayed are farmers, including the Archers themselves, David and Ruth, who work and live at Brookfield Farm with children Pip, Josh and Ben. The experience of the farmers in Ambridge reflects that of real farmers in the UK and they have had to deal with the same issues, including foot and mouth disease and bovine TB. The family has also had personal issues to contend with and, in 2006 Ruth nearly succumbed to the temptation of an affair with their herdsman, Sam Batton.
Actor Tim Bentinck trained at the Old Vic drama school in Bristol and his many television and film credits include BBC Four's The Thick Of It and ITV's Kingdom, but it's perhaps his voice that he ought to be most recognisable for, having played David Archer since 1982.
His first day on The Archers, admits Tim, was quite stressful: "I remember being absolutely terrified, I had done a little bit of radio before but somebody had told me The Archers had millions of listeners and that was intimidating for a start, such a huge, huge number."
But it wasn't just the size of the audience that was overwhelming, as Tim explains: "The other thing was the number of women who had said 'oh I listen to The Archers in the bath', and so I remember having this image of these vast acres of wet women listening. And the combination of those two thoughts, the size of the audience and all those women in the bath, was terribly intimidating. I think I only had one line, 'Hello mum, hello dad, it's me David,' but I remember my script was shaking so much I had to put it down because I was just terrified."
Despite the huge number of Archers aficionados, the anonymity of radio is something Tim has enjoyed: "Not being recognised is rather nice; when I was younger I was on telly a lot and I used to get recognised in the street and I realised these people who want to become famous pay a real price; they don't have any privacy.
"So to be a part of one of the icons of England with five million fans out there and still maintain my privacy is great. It's also quite funny when you've been chatting to someone for a while and then the conversation comes round to what you do for a living and I say I'm in The Archers and they're an Archers fan, then they realise they've been talking to David Archer. Gobsmack!"
Some might think that because of The Archers' huge following Tim's voice might be recognised in the street even if his face isn't, but he reveals that this is not the case: "You know it's never ever happened. I've never been talking and somebody says out of the blue 'Are you David Archer?' – it just doesn't happen. Because it's all about context, and people have an image in their head of what the character looks like and you don't look like that person. Of course the things that I say are different to David too, because I'm not him."
Playing a farmer hasn't been too much of a stretch for Tim as he lived a reasonably rural existence in his youth: "I used to live in the country as a kid and I worked on the farm down the road as a labourer, then I worked with a fencing contractor. In the Seventies my father gave up being an advertising executive to live off the land and bought a 10-acre smallholding and turned it into a small organic farm, so I spent quite a lot of time with him down there.
"Most of the things that David does on the farm I've done, although we used to be more hands-on – we'd hand-milk the cows rather than using the machines, so I'm not familiar with the hi-tech side of farming or the business side; but in terms of the getting-your-hands-dirty, scraping-up-manure type of farming, that I'm familiar with."
Surprisingly though, his wealth of farming experience wasn't a factor when Tim was cast as David: "I never mentioned it at the time, I don't think that was a criteria... It's whether or not you can act which is more important."
And, as Tim explains, acting on radio has its own set of challenges: "You have to be able to 'raise one eyebrow with your voice' because you haven't got any of those visual clues, so there are times when you have to act in a way you wouldn't act on stage or on television in order to make it obvious what your face or your body language is doing. So you have to put heaps of things in, for instance body movement; if you are standing up normally you just stand up without making a noise, but if you stand up on radio you've got to sort of put a bit of effort into your voice [he does so] so it sounds like you are getting up. So there are tricks like that – you have to help the listener to see the scene."
It's not just the actors' voices that help listeners visualise The Archers – there are other secrets used in radio-making to provide the desired sound effects, and Tim reveals his favourite Archers' trick: "The classic has got to be the ironing board. I think that's the best, I'm using that in my one-man show, it's just so absurd. All gates and cattle crushes and other hurdles are done with an old Fifties ironing board, which has got a special old rattle built in to it. You can't do it with a modern ironing board; it won't sound the same. So you just shake it around and smash it together when the gates close and things like that."
Tricks of the trade aside, another reason The Archers has remained popular for the last 60 years is the fantastic writing team behind the show and, reveals Tim, it's not always the writers who come up with storylines. "We do get to meet the writers and we are allowed to suggest things. Sometimes they are completely ignored, sometimes somebody might say, 'Oh that's a thought'.
"I've been asking for 28 years whether David can have an affair but I'm always told it's not going to happen. Yet David's wife, Ruth, nearly went off and had one, so clearly that's not going to happen again! But I've put forward the idea of wind farms, which would make a great debate because there's lots of pros and cons to that. So one can always suggest things and the production team are always open to hearing suggestions."
Ruth's liaison gave Tim an opportunity "to really investigate the character and his depths and weaknesses as well as exploring the real relationship between David and Ruth, and that was the most interesting thing to do.
"That said, it's always fun when we are doing stuff with all the villagers, like the panto – when we are all being daft together, then we all laugh like mad."
Having a giggle with the cast isn't always what it's cracked up to be, though, as Tim remembers when he joined the Archers: "There was a time when Trevor Harrison, who plays Eddie Grundy, and I got stuck on a line and we couldn't carry on, we were in hysterics. We got to that point where even if we looked at each other we got the giggles. It was very early on in my career and I thought I was going to get the sack because it was so unprofessional. They actually had to send us out – and then when they called us back in to do the scene, for some reason, Trevor and I still couldn't look at each other. That was pretty bad."
Luckily Tim soon got over the giggling phase and is now looking to the future to see what stories might lie ahead for David. "I think from David's point of view what he wants most is to have a stable and happy family. And when anything comes along that might destabilise that, David gets upset; and when David gets upset he gets angry; and when he gets angry he shouts a lot – and I get hoarse," he laughs.
"But it's terribly difficult for me because, of course, I want David to have lots of storylines so I get lots of episodes and enough money to survive for the year, and so on the other hand I'm wishing for disaster. If I say I want everything to be completely rosy and hunky dory for David then that would mean that's not very interesting for me, so I'm kind of torn... But I suppose with great generosity I should just say I'd just like him to be happy – that's all you can ever ask for anybody really."
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