Monday 21 Apr 2014
To many Archers fans Vanessa Whitburn has the most enviable job in broadcasting, because next year she will have been editor of The Archers – the nation's and, indeed, the world's longest-running serial drama – for 20 years. In fact, she first worked on it as a young graduate but, as Vanessa explains, her introduction to, and her love of, the series started at an even younger age.
"I have my maternal grandparents to thank for my job on The Archers," she laughs. "When I was at school I used to pop in every day for lunch to my grandparents, who were from farming stock, and The Archers was always on the radio. We had to keep quiet whilst it was on and everyone, including me, was totally absorbed."
This seed planted at an early age blossomed into a love of drama as a genre, which really started to take off at University. Reading English and American studies at Hull, Vanessa developed a love of, and discovered a talent for, directing dramas and she did as much as she could in her spare time. Therefore, it was no surprise that, when she graduated, Vanessa applied to the BBC for a job – though not immediately as a drama director.
"Like Esther Rantzen, I started at the BBC as a studio manager in radio," Vanessa says. "I wanted to get into the BBC so I could badger them about getting to work on drama. I worked on everything from the Today Programme to Radio 1 and, of course, radio drama.
Two years into the job as a studio manager, Vanessa seized her opportunity to get into the genre she loved when she applied for a producer attachment in radio drama based in Birmingham. This job gave her the first chance to direct the series she'd first listened to in her grandparents home all those years ago.
"I wasn't only working on The Archers," she explains. "But it was, and still is, the biggest brand out of Birmingham. Luckily for me, the editor at the time, William Smethurst, recognised that I was good at directing and casting so he let me get on with that whilst he concentrated on storylines and scripts."
In fact, Vanessa cast some of the best-loved characters in The Archers today including Trevor Harrison as Eddie Grundy, Sara Coward as Caroline Stirling (formerly Pemberton) and Graham Seed as Nigel Pargetter. At the same time, Vanessa continued to produce and direct other dramas for Radio 3 and Radio 4.
But another big career move soon beckoned in the form of television drama Brookside and its creator, Phil Redmond.
Vanessa worked on the TV soap during one of its more creative periods and has no regrets about her time spent there. "It was in the days when Jimmy McGovern was still writing for it," says Vanessa. "And there were some great storylines with terrific characters. Working with Sue Johnston as Sheila, for example, was a joy."
Vanessa was able to further increase her knowledge and understanding of how drama worked during her time on the soap. "I loved Brookside," says Vanessa. "I spent four years there and learnt everything about soaps, storyline editing and script editing."
But clearly it was always Vanessa's fate to work on Radio 4's biggest drama and she returned to it as editor in 1991. In her role as editor for the last 20 years, Vanessa has guided plot and character development on the series.
Archers fans are famously loyal and fiercely protective of their radio community. Vanessa recalls some of the stronger reactions to storylines. "When Ruth had her near affair with Sam the herdsman it really divided the audience," she says. "Some people believed that she would have gone as far as we made her go but others were adamant that she would never have looked at another man. It caused a huge discussion and controversy and people were phoning their friends to talk about it."
It's this passionate reaction to the storylines that has framed many of Vanessa's favourite moments over the years.
"Personally, what I enjoy most of all are the stories that ripple out into the real world and generate debate and discussion," she says. "Not only about the story itself but if there is a real-life story within the fictional storyline somewhere."
An example of this was when Susan Carter was put into prison over Christmas for helping her brother to escape from a prison van on the way to court. "We made the judge come down very hard because he saw it as impeding the course of public justice and it caused a furore," says Vanessa.
"Michael Howard called for Susan to be released. Judges and barristers were arguing about it and, at the same time, we had real people saying that's all very well but I was sent to jail in similar circumstances. Then a fan from Norfolk made 'Free the Ambridge One' badges and a series of stickers and they were sent to me. It was before Coronation Street did the free Deirdre campaign!"
Continuity is, of course, essential to a drama like The Archers and there is an archivist, Camilla Fisher, who makes sure that factually all is correct. "Camilla has a brilliant computer which remembers more than the average human being and she can check all the facts on that, although she holds an enormous amount in her head as well," says Vanessa.
Emotional continuity, though, is harder to pin down. "It is often a matter of debate within the team, always using knowledge of past action. It's always a matter of discussion and speculation and you have to make those decisions in the end using instinct."
As well as the highlights there have been some sad moments, too, for Vanessa in those 20 years. "The death of Norman Painting and other long-standing cast members has been very sad, of course," she says. "And that sadness is reflected in the stories as their deaths have to be dealt with in the drama.
Another storyline I found very moving was Jack Woolley's alzeimers and his wife, Peggy, having to look after him. I'm very proud of that, too, because it was beautifully written and beautifully acted by Arnold and June. It won awards – voted for by professionals who work in mental health – but it was very sad."
As The Archers approaches its 60th anniversary, Vanessa has her own idea on why it still appeals and endures. "In a world in which we all have busy lives and go to great lengths to keep up with friends and family, people enjoy a community just around the corner," she says.
"The community has its ups and downs but it's that sense of community which is at the heart of the series."
And Vanessa explains why farming and rural community is still at the heart of The Archers. "It's our unique-selling proposition," she says. "It's very very important and it's what makes us different. That sense of place is essential to soaps. EastEnders has Albert Square and The Archers has Ambridge and farming life."
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