Farm­ers are the great in­no­va­tors – in Am­bridge and in the real world

Bri­tain’s long­est-run­ning ra­dio soap, The Archers, is built on a be­drock of solid agri­cul­tural knowl­edge. The man re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing that knowl­edge for the past quar­ter of a cen­tury is Gra­ham Har­vey. Martin Hesp caught up with him

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - The Long Read -

Some of those early Archers sto­ries were full of spe­cial agents liv­ing in car­a­vans. Peo­ple say now, ‘You’ve lost your con­tact with agri­cul­ture’. But if you go back to those early sto­ries, they were out­landish.

GRA­HAM HAR­VEY

HE’S been called “Bri­tain’s other min­is­ter for farm­ing”. For al­most a quar­ter of a cen­tury his has been one of the most pub­lic voices in the world of UK agri­cul­ture, and yet sur­pris­ingly few peo­ple have ever ac­tu­ally heard him speak.

Now Gra­ham Har­vey has re­tired from the in­flu­en­tial and unique job com­monly known as “Ag Ed” of the BBC’s The Archers ra­dio soap – the long­est con­tin­u­ous-run­ning pro­gramme of its kind in the world and, with five mil­lion lis­ten­ers a week, prob­a­bly the best known.

Gone, but by no means for­got­ten. Be­cause Gra­ham – who lives in Ex­moor Na­tional Park – is plan­ning a ma­jor series of pod­casts about farm­ing and the food we eat.

But as The Archers is such a prominent and unusual pro­gramme in the way it re­flects ru­ral life, we thought we’d get Gra­ham to tell us some­thing about the highs and lows of his long ca­reer at the BBC.

“Al­to­gether, I’ve been 34 years in Am­bridge, which is a sober­ing thought,” said Gra­ham as we took a stroll in the hills above his house in the Bren­don es­carp­ment. “I al­ways thought the agri­cul­tural editor (now agri­cul­tural ad­viser) was Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture for Am­bridge – be­cause I de­cide what goes on on the farms in that village. Or I have done. Now I have re­tired, but it’s been a big chunk of my life.”

Gra­ham be­gan life at Am­bridge as one of the scriptwrit­ers and didn’t rise to be­ing the Ag Ed for more than a decade un­til the fa­mous An­thony Parkin re­tired from the job. He was handed the man­tle be­cause of his early ca­reer – first as a uni­ver­sity stu­dent study­ing agri­cul­ture, then as a London-based rov­ing re­porter for one of the UK’s lead­ing agri­cul­tural mag­a­zines. But he wea­ried of life in the city and moved to Devon work­ing as a free­lance farm­ing jour­nal­ist, which led him to meet the Ag Ed and even­tu­ally one Wil­liam Smethurst, who was then editor of The Archers.

As a fan of the pro­gramme, Gra­ham was de­ter­mined to work for the show and so set about writ­ing a week’s worth of scripts. “I only got to Wed­nes­day and thought, ‘ This is jolly hard work’, so I sent three days of sto­ries and heard noth­ing for months. Then I got a phone call out of the blue from Wil­liam, and we met up in the Mon­ta­cute Arms, near Yeovil.

“He of­fered me a week’s trial based on those scripts. I did that, and he said the se­cond lot were pretty aw­ful, ‘But I’ll give you an­other go…’ So I did an­other week and he said, ‘Gra­ham, if any­thing your se­cond week’s ef­fort is worse than your first!’”

But Gra­ham had writ­ten one scene that Smethurst liked – in­deed it was a scene which in­tro­duced the char­ac­ter El­iz­a­beth Archer to the show – and that was enough to get him his first free­lance con­tract with the BBC.

“The story was that Nigel Par­get­ter had been go­ing out with Shula – but in this fi­nal scene we have a mis­er­able Nigel sit­ting in the or­chard at Brook­field and the breezy new char­ac­ter El­iz­a­beth comes out and says, ‘Why are you look­ing so mis­er­able?’ Nigel says, ‘Your sister just chucked me’. So El­iz­a­beth says, ‘Well, it’s your lucky day, be­cause you can take me out now’.”

And the rest, as Archers lis­ten­ers will know, is his­tory. El­iz­a­beth still plays a ma­jor role in the soap, al­though poor Nigel was killed off when he fell from the roof of his man­sion.

Gra­ham told me that he al­ways thinks of Am­bridge as be­ing some­where in the Worces­ter­shire area – partly be­cause it was the re­gion known best by God­frey Base­ley who in­vented the show.

“God­frey had this idea of hav­ing a sort of farm­ing Dick Bar­ton, which would be daily ad­ven­tures in the life of this ru­ral village. And a per­cent­age of those sto­ries should be about farm­ing and in a sub­tle way we’d get over mes­sages about what farm­ers should be do­ing.

“Some of those early sto­ries were full of spe­cial agents liv­ing in car­a­vans. Peo­ple say now, ‘You’ve lost your con­tact with agri­cul­ture’. But if you go back to those early sto­ries, they were out­landish.”

“But are peo­ple right to claim that The Archers has for­got­ten some of its ru­ral roots?” I asked.

“The BBC recog­nises that farm­ing has to be at the very heart of it,” Gra­ham replied. “They’ve re­placed me with a West Coun­try girl called Sarah Swadling. And I still be­lieve it (farm­ing) is at the heart of most ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Maybe more so in fu­ture.

“The joy of The Archers is that we have this range of dif­fer­ent types of farm. We have Bridge Farm which is or­ganic – mixed farm­ing crops, but also live­stock. Along­side that you have Home Farm with Brian Aldridge, which is a largely mech­a­nised, largely arable farm. The Es­tate is all arable.

“So I think we do re­flect what’s go­ing on, but be­cause it’s ra­dio drama we have to im­pose some­thing ar­ti­fi­cial onto that. My job ev­ery month was to come up with new farm­ing sto­ries. I had to add in jeop­ardy be­cause you don’t have drama with­out that.

“We were talk­ing about Tom and his agro-forestry. Im­me­di­ately I had to think – I’ve got to put some con­flict in here – which isn’t dif­fi­cult be­cause, within fam­i­lies, you have con­flict all the time. So Tom’s sister He­len is keen to de­velop the dairy. Her big thing is that the qual­ity of the cheese has gone off ever since they started buy­ing in milk. So she’s think­ing – we’ve got to bring cows back to Bridge Farm.

“She thinks Tom’s ideas to cover the land with trees is just a dis­trac­tion. An­other whim. Not long ago he was the Sausage King of Am­bridge. Then he went into fer­mented foods – and now his lat­est thing is that he wants to plant trees ev­ery­where.”

Gra­ham is well-known for his en­thu­si­asm when it comes to look­ing at al­ter­na­tive forms of agri­cul­ture. Did these en­thu­si­asms ever get him into trou­ble with lis­ten­ers, who felt the pro­gramme should not go out­side the world of con­ven­tional agri­cul­ture?

“They did lead me into the BBC’s dis­ci­plinary pro­ce­dure at one point – but I al­ways took the view that we had to be bal­anced. And you could do that in The Archers. You’re right – I do like pas­ture-based sys­tems. I think they are the mak­ing of the English coun­try­side and pro­duce bet­ter food more sus­tain­ably. But I know there are those who take the al­ter­na­tive point of view. It’s no bother to me. So when Brook­field went over to a spring calv­ing pas­ture-based sys­tem I was per­fectly happy to have Brian Aldridge say­ing: ‘This is a back­ward step’, or what­ever.

“The re­quire­ment of do­ing that job was – if you put a one-sided view, you had to find an­other to bal­ance it out.

“So Pat and Tony Archer were hav­ing din­ner with the Aldridges and there was a big row about or­ganic ver­sus Brian’s type of high-in­put farm­ing. Brian was very scathing about the or­ganic sys­tem and at one point Pat rips in to him and says: ‘You are get­ting all the sub­si­dies – you are wreck­ing the coun­try­side!’

“I read the scene and thought: ‘Yeah, that’s about right’. But there was a com­plaint about it from some­one say­ing Pat was wrong be­cause she would have ex­actly the same sub­si­dies as Brian.

“It was wrong, but the bal­ance of the scene was right. Pat lost her rag and said what any or­ganic farmer might say. We had to go to the dis­ci­pline com­mit­tee and they agreed that tech­ni­cally the com­plainant might be right – but on bal­ance it was the kind of thing some­one in an an­gry mood might throw out.”

He went on: “I’ve never been a farmer, but it’s this blend. The best farm­ers some­how blend the very

phys­i­cal with the cre­ative and in­no­va­tive. They are great in­no­va­tors – par­tic­u­larly the ones who think: this isn’t work­ing, how can we do it bet­ter? I think those things are so in­ter­est­ing, par­tic­u­larly now. We are in a state of great flux in the coun­try­side – we are coming out of the CAP and who knows which way farm­ing is go­ing to go? But I be­lieve there is enough in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity to make the Bri­tish coun­try­side – farm­ing and our food – bet­ter than it is now.”

As for the rel­e­vance of The Archers, he said: “You re­alise that out there in the coun­try­side – in­clud­ing in the world of farm­ing – there is a great love for this pro­gramme. Farm­ers might not al­ways agree with all the sto­ries we do – but all those farm­ers, whether they are Brian Aldridge or the or­ganic ones – I al­ways treat them with huge re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion. So I might not agree with Brian’s meth­ods but I’ve talked to many farm­ers like him – and I don’t have any trou­ble rep­re­sent­ing him. Not as a hero, but with re­spect.”

Talk­ing of Brian – the wealthy farmer who’s been in the pro­gramme for don­key’s years – he is in big trou- ble at the mo­ment. Was that Gra­ham’s idea?

“It was my do­ing. This isn’t against what I just said. I do think Brian is a great char­ac­ter – but he is a flawed char­ac­ter. An­thony Parkin used to say: ‘Brian and Home Farm is im­preg­nable – they’ve got no mort­gage, they’ve got 1,500 across which they own – noth­ing will top­ple Brian Aldridge’.

“Many years later I thought, ‘I won­der if he’s right?’ And he isn’t. Be­cause I re­mem­ber when I was with Farm­ers’ Weekly, farms al­ways had dumps on them. I used to go on these farms and there’d be an old quarry with ma­chin­ery and of­ten drums, and I thought, ‘I won­der...?’

“In the 1970s there used to be sto­ries in the pa­pers – reg­u­la­tions about in­dus­trial waste were be­ing tight­ened and there were pros­e­cu­tions with peo­ple who’d taken in nox­ious waste, buried it on the farm and taken back­han­ders for it. I thought, ‘Say Brian’s done that?’

“The whole Aldridge em­pire looked as if it was go­ing to come crash­ing down as a re­sult of that. Brian al­ways says he didn’t know what it was, that it was a mis­take that the fish started dy­ing in the River Am 40 years later.

“I can tell you that one farmer has said to me, ‘That story made us all think very care­fully about our past’.

“In terms of drama, it’s been bril­liant be­cause it’s led to huge fam­ily up­heavals which haven’t run their course yet. The lat­est thing is that he’s hav­ing to get out of the farm­house. So long-suf­fer­ing Jen­nifer is pay­ing the price. She’s put up with all Brian’s in­dis­cre­tions and now, be­cause of this piece of small-time dodgy deal­ing that he did 40 years ago, she’s los­ing her house.”

But is there a dan­ger that The Archers can overdo the drama, I asked.

“It’s where The Archers has al­ways been,” Gra­ham shrugs. “I’ve got cut­tings from the 1960s with tabloid head­lines like: ‘ Archers Dis­cov­ers Sex’. These kinds of re­sponses go back for as long as The Archers has been there. ‘Shock hor­ror sex in The Archers’ is a peren­nial story. It comes up of­ten and it will come up again. That re­sponse of, ‘It’s come into the real world and we don’t like it’, is part of the story.”

Last year the pro­gramme hit head­lines big time when one of the char- ac­ters stabbed her hus­band in front of her child and went to prison.

“The Rob and He­len story was brought in by (ex-editor) Sean O’Con­nor who came in from East­End­ers, and went back there even­tu­ally. He called it ‘gaslight­ing’, where you have a re­la­tion­ship be­tween two peo­ple which is to­tally preda­tory on be­half of one of them – usu­ally the man – who does ev­ery­thing to de­stroy the per­son­al­ity (of the other), start­ing by mak­ing them doubt their own san­ity. Sep­a­rat­ing them from their fam­ily and friends con­nec­tions.

“Sean said, ‘This will work well on ra­dio’. We had an ob­vi­ous can­di­date in He­len be­cause her his­tory in the pro­gramme had made her frag­ile. We didn’t have any idea who the op­pres­sive char­ac­ter was go­ing to be, but we’d brought in a new char­ac­ter to run this big dairy, called Rob Titch­ener. We be­gan to hear Rob and we thought there is some­thing in that guy’s voice and man­ner which might work re­ally well in this story.

“It was hugely ef­fec­tive. And dif­fi­cult lis­ten­ing, be­cause it was done very slowly. Lis­ten­ers to the show knew what was go­ing on long be­fore the fam­ily did. Ra­dio is bril­liant at get­ting into re­ally in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships in a way tele­vi­sion can’t. Any­way, the story un­folded and ended up with He­len plung­ing the knife into Rob and be­ing pros­e­cuted for at­tempted man­slaugh­ter.

“Af­ter that I was at Devon County Show and some­body I knew from years ago came over and said, ‘I want to con­grat­u­late you on that story’. He told me of some­body he knew, a woman. Ev­ery day for about 20 years her hus­band had taken her to work and col­lected her – and she’d phoned her brother one day from work and said, ‘I want you to come and col­lect me at four o’clock. I’m leav­ing my hus­band and I’m not go­ing back to him again’.

“It tran­spired she’d lis­tened to that story and re­alised she was in the same sit­u­a­tion. Just hear­ing it drama­tised it made her re­alise. Be­ing told that at Devon County Show made me feel very hum­bled – and it made me re­alise that we were do­ing some­thing quite use­ful.”

And talk­ing about be­ing use­ful, Gra­ham, who is in his early 70s, in­tends car­ry­ing on be­ing busy for as long as he can, with a series of pod­casts he hopes to launch soon.

Gra­ham Har­vey has re­tired as agri­cul­tural ad­viser for The Archers – or ‘Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture for Am­bridge’ – af­ter 34 years work­ing on the ra­dio soap

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