Rossendale Free Press
Ambridge too far? Not for the Archers
The world’s longest running radio drama is celebrating its 70th anniversary. MARION McMULLEN looks at the enduring appeal of The Archers
THE opening words in the first episode of The Archers in 1951 came from Dan Archer wishing everyone: “And a happy New Year to all.” Seventy years later the BBC Radio 4 drama is still going strong and has become the world’s longest running serial drama.
Comedian Billy Connolly has even joked that the distinctive jaunty Barwick Green theme tune should be adopted as the national anthem to raise everyone’s spirits.
The music began life as a maypole dance from the suite My Native
Heath written in 1924 by Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood and a short clip featured in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 as part of a celebration of British culture.
The first national broadcast of The Archers was on the BBC’s Light Programme on January 1, 1951, and the series – created by Godfrey Baseley – was originally devised as a way to help educate farmers in modern production methods when Britain was still in the grip of food rationing.
Set in the fictional village of Ambridge, it follows the lives of the Archers family and their farming neighbours and community. There have been 19,343 episodes so far and eight million listeners tuned in to hear Grace Archer “killed off” in a fire in the stables in 1955.
The Archers has featured royal guest appearances from the late Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Cornwall while Terry Wogan, Britt
Ekland, Alan Titchmarsh, Griff Rhys Jones, artist Antony Gormley and Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter have all made cameo appearances.
Stephen Fry appeared as himself in a 2005 Comic Relief spoof written by the late Victoria Wood while Dame Judi Dench voiced the usually silent character Pru Forrest for the 10,000th episode.
Synth-pop icons the Pet Shop Boys also recorded a special guest appearance for The Archers, in 2014. Ambridge has seen more than 1,400 characters over the years with the first birth taking place on February 16, 1951, when Peggy welcomed a son, Anthony. Tony Archer, who runs Bridge Farm with his family, is now a proud grandfather.
June Spencer, who plays Peggy, has been in the rural radio soap since its first episode and the 101-yearold is the only remaining member of the original cast. Phil Archer played by Norman Painting became a household name on September 22, 1955 when Grace, his wife of only five months, died in his arms after trying to save her horses from the stable fire. The BBC switchboard was jammed for 48 hours with shocked listeners after the landmark episode, which reached an audience of 20 million.
Norman also wrote 1,198 scripts for the radio drama between 1966 and 1982 under the pen name Bruno Milna.
The Glastonbury Festival has featured in The Archers on more than one occasion and in 1998 Kate Aldridge gave birth to her daughter Phoebe inside a tepee at the festival.
Stories are generally plotted three months ahead of transmission, but some are worked out years in advance. Whole storylines were devised to track the development of Foot and Mouth in 2001 and the show also uses topical drop-ins recorded at short notice and has marked the deaths of royals like Princess Diana and commented on England’s performance in World Cups.
The programme is recorded at the BBC’s Birmingham studios in The Mailbox and prior to that The Archers’ home for many years had been Pebble Mill.
Many surprising objects are used to recreate the sounds heard on The Archers: a vintage ironing board is used as the sound of a farm gate; a waxed raincoat creates the sound of the entrance to Kate’s yurts at Spiritual Home and the sound of crunching through undergrowth is recreated by placing scrunched up recycled magnetic recording tape on the ground, which actors walk on.
Special attention is also paid to effects such as the sounds of cattle and birdsong. These are carefully chosen to reflect the specific breed of cow mentioned in the script or the season during which the episode occurs.
Over the years there have also been many ‘silent’ characters – Richard and Sabrina Thwaite, Eddie Grundy’s friends Baggy and Fat Paul, bell-ringer Neville Booth and his nephew, Nathan, and the Button family.
They are never seen or heard but the audience know them well.
Though silent they are very much part of Ambridge life and many a tear was shed when Bert Fry’s wife, silent character Freda Fry, died from pneumonia as a result of the floods.
Jeremy Howe, editor of The Archers, says: “One of the reasons for the success of The Archers is that the formula is very simple – you can measure, see and grasp it very quickly.
“Each episode takes place on the day of broadcast so it is, always has been – and I think always will be – the way we live now.”