A Simple Desultory Phillipic

Or how I was John Archered into submission

The title is not strictly true, two out of three will probably be borne out, and the third may well come storming to the fore eventually, but it does give me the chance to use the title of one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs.

So, the scriptwriters copped out. They wussed out. 'Fess up and make a clean break, they're running out of ideas. The scene was set for a cracking Spring: Sawyers Farm, Nelson's non-appearance, Shula and another dull beau, Caroline and another hopelessly mismatched beau, Roy and Kate battling their way to the maternity ward by the Family Division of the High Court, not to mention Mrs Antrobus' new greenhouse, Kathy's return to teaching, Roy and Hayley's budding romance and Sean and Peter's empire-building.

All of these though are as if they might never have even been contemplated as we brace ourselves for a month or two or breast-beating and assorted wails of anguish. Tony, a cheery soul at the best of times, a shu-in to find the cloud around every silver lining, is going to be a proper little ray of sunshine now.

Why kill him off? Why did he have to die? Why are we asked to listen to Hayley's lovelorn weeping and think, "if only you'd said yes on Tuesday night, this would all have been different." We hear her profess her love but, secretly (and we hate ourselves for it) we think that telling him that a few days before might have made the difference. I dislike being asked, no matter how implicitly, to dislike Hayley. She's far and away the brightest star in the Ambridge constellation at the moment and to sully her name is just not on. It does at least save her from John, which is a good thing, but at too high a cost.

John's character had few positive features, his business acumen was suspect, reliant as it was on the help and abuse, in equal measures, of friend and family. He was self-centred and dull, and not beyond stealing the apple of his brother's eye at the birthday party of a recent conquest while professing love for his ex, who he'd driven away by playing away from home, er, at home.

So

What's it all about? Copy. It's all about good copy. Old fashioned news. There is but one target for the combined ire of all those who hold the Archers to be pure and unsullied and above such PR dealings (Grace's death in the fire coinciding with ITV's opening transmission was but an aberration). An editor of the programme should be there to oversee the characters and guide them, for the characters are our's: the listeners', not to be toyed with at the whim of some apparatchik of the Birtian ministry of information.

When Tony found the cold, we now know, lifeless form of his son on Wednesday evening the programme played out to silence. A touching and moving sequence. Secretly we knew what was coming, but the morning papers and an interview on the Today programme, while we're slurping and munching our tea and toast the following morning is not the time and place to reveal earth-shaking news. For Ambridge is news. Make no mistake, middle England listens to the news from the snug of The Bull. We might all recognise Ambridge as being some rural idyll that could never exist, but we would all love to live there: to bat at three and play second fiddle to David's cup winning innings, to have taken tea at Nelson's or to fish in the Home Farm lake. To discuss the CAP with Tony in The Bull or fight to be served a designer lager in the Cat, it's all within our grasp.

And

Where was the Doom Music? That fine and noble variation on "Barwick Green" that has, for decades, differentiated the dramatic from the every day happenings of Borsetshire. Silence is noble, effective and moving, but the Doom Music is tradition. You upset tradition, especially Radio Four tradition, at your peril.

The Archers is not a soap opera. If you watch "Neighbours" or "EastEnders" for any length of time, you will grow to know the characters and, if you leave the programme for a few months and then return, you will not know your up from down. Fast-changing, event-driven and totally unrealistic. Ambridge is different, unlike Ramsay Street or Albert Square, you know that from one year to the next who the occupants of Brookfield are not going to change. If Mrs Mangel and Jane, Des and Daphne or Max, Danny and Shane had lived in Ambridge, they would still be there, not the dim, distant memories of people who just wouldn't recognise the current incumbents. You can, and many do, get out of the Archers habit but, through whatever circumstances suddenly find themselves listening again five or ten years later - and they pick things up almost immediately.

There is a stability in the Ambridge inertia. A stability that creating storylines that serve only to get the programme into the headlines for a morning is bound to upset. John Archer's death was unnecessary. Vanessa Whitburn should be tried for murder, a malicious and totally unprovoked attack on an innocent victim in the war for ratings and meejah recognition. The part is bigger than an actor so why should the editor submit to an actor's demand that the part die with his leaving the cast. His narcissitic desire to exploit his face is a reasonable career move, removing a necessary cog in a finely machine is unforgivable.

There can only be one

To reinstate John cannot happen. For Hayley (or even Gemma or Nicky) to be pregnant with his child would be unbelievable, as it is the parallels with Mark Hebden are too strong: a dull character in a road accident dying on a close relative's birthday in February (17th February 1994: Mark died on Pip's first birthday).

The traditions of the Archers run strong. Tinker with The Archers at your peril. As 1998 progresses Radio Four will see large changes in its schedules and the Archers sprouts a sixth episode a week. It remains to be seen whether the Leviathan that is British public opinion, slow to stir but unstoppable when agitated, will allow these changes to wash over it, or whether heads will (as they surely most) roll ....


This commentary was originally written the day after John Archer's death, 25th February, 1998

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