On Tweetalongs, Babies and Ambridge (part 2)
I get a lot of stick for listening to The Archers. I can understand why – it’s a 60-year-old radio programme on Radio 4 about life in a rural farming community; Mad Men it isn’t. The reason I listen, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, is precisely because not much happens. Yes, there are story arcs, and some days/weeks are more dramatic than others but, in general, it reflects everyday life in its mundanity and general lack of high peaks and low troughs.
The one thing The Archers isn’t is Coronation Street or EastEnders. It’s not even Emmerdale (which surely is it’s closest televisual equivalent, although arguably less so since it lost the “…Farm” in the title). Of course, Ambridge has had it’s share of affairs, deaths and scandals, but because it’s not chasing viewing figures or advertising revenue in the way that makes or breaks an expensive TV show (and they’re all expensive when you compare them to radio), The Archers exists in a much more civilised and, dare I say it, realistic world than the “soap opera”.
All of this brings me to Sunday evening’s 60th Anniversary episode, trailed for some time as containing an event which would “shock Ambridge to the core”. Of course, this whipped up a frenzy of internet-based speculation as to what it might be – the death of Helen Archer’s unborn baby? David Archer shot by hay thieves? Eddie Grundy unmasked as leader of an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell? This was all good fun, but I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that this was all very un-Archers-like. Soap operas love their anniversary episodes – it’s a good excuse to do something “daring”, which usually involves a ridiculously convoluted plot (Coronation Street’s recent tram crash), or an unnecessary live episode (EastEnders’ 25th anniversary earlier this year). On TV of course, this means viewing figures, and viewing figures mean money (either advertising profit on commercial channels, or budget security on the BBC). The Archers is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, programme on Radio 4. It doesn’t need to rake in more listeners, and the existing fanbase doesn’t need an out-of-character shocking episode to keep it interested.
With the programme running double the normal length, they obviously had to fill it with something. Rather than give us some business-as-usual and build up to a big finish, the writers seemed hell-bent on taking us on a rollercoaster ride of a wild goosechase (if that’s not stretching the metaphors too far), setting up at least 3 potential disasters over the course of 26 minutes. When the final dénouement, I was actually so bored with being toyed with that I almost turned off. The rollercoaster nature of the storyline served the tweetalong (which I cover in part 1 of this epic tome) perfectly, allowing veteran listeners and newcomers alike the opportunity to do the internet equivalent of going “ooh” and “aah” at fireworks. I’m not saying that the tweetalong influenced the way the plot developed, but they certainly complemented each other well (and that’s not a compliment).
In short, what should have been a memorable episode encompassing 60 years of broadcasting achievement (and, let’s not forget, The Archers is now the longest-running drama serial in the world), was turned into a pantomime. The production team did, however, redeem themselves with tonight’s follow-up episode, dealing with the emotional reaction to the events of last night. Whereas last night’s half-hour felt like ten minutes of over-the-top farce, tonight’s quarter-hour left you feeling like you’d sat through a feature-length drama, and that’s testament to the cast and the writers.
So, well done The Archers for showing that, when you’re left to just do what you do best, you can make some really good radio drama. Here’s to another 60 years.
Listen to tonight’s follow-up to the Anniversary episode here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00x3tvt/