I Think Therefore I Ambridge

Apologies. Having not posted much in the last few days, today’s is likely to be a longish one. Also, if you have no interest at all in The Archers, then you should probably hit the back button now.

Vanessa Whitburn, editor in chief of the BBC Radio-4 soap opera The Archers, set in the non-existant village of Ambridge, is one of these unacknowledged power-wielders. I might add that she once declared that ‘to be politically correct is really to be moral. It is having a moral stance. PC is, in fact, my moral plank’.

“Having already introduced racial harrassment and homosexual partnerships into Ambridge, she has now chosen to tear apart the previously stable and happy marriage of two of the drama’s central characters, Ruth and David Archer.

“Maybe these tales shouldn’t matter to people, but they do. What does Miss Whitburn hope to achieve? Should she be allowed to pursue?”

So wrote Peter Hitchens on the Mail on Sunday last weekend. Quite what his objections to the gay and racist storylines he didn’t say, nor did he articulate what so rattled his cage about the current Ruth/David/Sam/Sophie plot, but his unspoken criticism was that this was yet another BBC attack on the family, although he did confess that he doesn’t actually listen to the programme, so that charge must be based on hearsay.

The reason I mention this is that I had the pleasure of a brief chat with Vanessa last night at a celebration of the 15,000th edition of The Archers which goes out tonight just after seven. I asked her about the article and the quote PH attributed to her. I won’t say what she thought of him as a journalist, but she said the comments were based on a conversation that took place some years ago and she has no memory of using the phrase ‘moral plank’.

She had said earlier that the media only really get interested in The Archers’ storylines when it features something salacious, particularly adultery, but that they don’t want to know when they try to raise other moral and social issues. From the Jennifer Aldridge (formerly Travers-Macy, née Archer) single parent storyline of 1967 and her considering an abortion, The Archers has tackled issues long before TV soaps attempted them, and usually with greater success.

Ruth’s breast cancer; GM crops; supermarkets — farmer’s friend or for?; organic farming; the role of the church in a community; Ed Grundy’s drug and alcohol problems; Alistair Lloyd’s gambling addiction; the trading in condemned meat; bankrupt farming families thrown off their farms; the list goes on.

I mentioned some weeks ago that Mrs P had won an invite for two to the celebration at the swish BBC studios at The Mailbox in Birmingham and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so we drove down there yesterday afternoon.

The email was rather vague about what was to happen, but we duly arrived at their doors at 7pm. In the reception area, seats were laid out row on row, I would guess for about 80 to 100 people, but first we were shown upstairs for a choice of tea, coffee, soft drinks, cider or British white wine, all served in Archers mugs. We opted for the latter and very good it was too.

The event got underway proper at 7.30 and looking round, the Archers Addicts were mostly, though not all, of a certain age, and mostly, though not all, white. Good then that the evening was hosted by Marverine Cole who hosts news, views and topical issues programme for the West Midlands’ African Caribbean communities, who is also an avid Archers fan.

Radio Four controller, Mark Damazer, got the ball rolling with a brief speech that included the the supposedly true story that of the hundreds of messages he received when he was appointed, the one that stuck in his memory was one that said: “You can do what you want to Radio 4. I really don’t care. But if you try to move The Archers from its 7.05 and 2.05 slots, I will personally come down there and nut you.”

There followed an hour long question and answer session, the four people on the panel being Vanessa Whitburn, Felicity Finch (Ruth Archer), Tim Bentinck (David Archer) and the scriptwriter of tonight’s episode. It was an interesting and fun session and, of course, what everybody wanted to know was where the Ruth/David storyline is going. They tried very hard not to give anything away, but Felicity did say that she has already recorded the Christmas episodes. Just not with who!

I won’t bore you with all the Q+As, except for one: Do the actors acually kiss to create the sound effects? Felicity answered saying that in the past, they would kiss the backs of their hands, the reason being that in the days when the show was recorded onto tape, the equipment wasn’t good enough to pick up the real thing. But in our digital age, the sound equipment is sensitive enough to record the real deal, so that’s what they do.

This begged the follow up question: Does that mean that that shower scene with Sid and Jolene the real thing? Well yes and no. They set up the and the actors were in there, but with there hands more full of scripts than each other and the lathering effects came from the spot manager who was in there with them.

The Q+A over, we retired for more wine and a chat with Felicity Finch who was sweet. There was also a tour of the studio. Again, I won’t bore you with the details, but I have posted photos and more details here if you’re interested.

However, I was able to speak to one of the scriptwriters about The Archers and ‘the rule of seven’ that I was sure I’d read about. Given that each episode last 12.20 to 12.40 minutes, the rule had it that no more than seven characters could appear in any one as we’d lose track of what was going on.

He confirmed that that used to be the case, but nowadays there can be seven, six or even five characters per episode. This has nothing to do with us getting any better or worse at keeping up with the plot, but is down to BBC budget cuts.

So that was our excellent day and I haven’t even mentioned Birmingham. Perhaps tomorrow. But I will leave you with two things I didn’t know about The Archers until yesterday. One: Ed’s delinquent mate, Jazzer, is played by blind actor Ryan Kelly. And two: Moir Leslie who plays the scheming Sophie Barlow also played the previous vicar of Ambridge, Janet Foster.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

2 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 8th November 2006

    Oh yes… Southend 1 Man U 0. SACK THE MANAGER!

  • Shooting Parrots 8th November 2006

    No complaints, it was a cracking goal and their keeper had a great game. And Sir A was magnanimous in defeat.


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