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
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.
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