Isolation diary: Listening to The Archers

So lockdown has reached Ambridge at last, just as the rest of the country is beginning to ease itself back to normality.

The Archers is the only soap I follow these days, and I only got sucked in properly during the Rob and Helen coercive control storyline over four years ago. Before that I had dropped in from time to time, often listening in the car as I was driving to evening meetings. In fact, “Dum di dum di dim di dum” had echoed throughout my adult life.

I can actually remember the shock that reverberated through the village when the unmarried Jennifer got pregnant and refused to say who the father was (although it was later revealed to be the result of a fling with the cowman).  Adam, her son, is now over 50. He is married to Ian, the chef at Grey Gables, and has recently become a father, through surrogacy, to young Xander – which demonstrates neatly how things have changed in 50 years.

Episodes of the soap are written and recorded in six week cycles, some time ahead of the broadcast date. The actual recordings take place over the course of one week, which is why, if an actor is unavailable for that week they have to be written out of the show for six weeks. Tamsin Grieg, who is much in demand for stage and TV work, still pops back occasionally, but her character Debbie now conveniently lives in Hungary (I can’t remember why).

When lockdown was imposed on the rest of the country on 23rd March there were still five weeks’ worth of broadcasts in the can. The producers decided to cut down from six episodes per week to five, which gave them an extra week’s grace. However, this had the odd effect of getting The Archers even more out of sync with the rest of the world, and they appeared to be celebrating Easter (with the church still open) on a Wednesday.

We were then treated to three weeks of key archived episodes, which I found quite useful as they filled in some gaps in my knowledge of the characters and storylines.

Finally, yesterday we were back in Ambridge again, but it was very different, and not just because the characters are now following Government guidelines. Crucially, so are the actors and creatives. Back in March, 12 scripts had to be abandoned and storylines revisited.  Actors were sent equipment and told to build a recording nest surrounded by duvets to muffle the sound. New storylines have been written, but they are now presented as overlapping monologues rather than dialogues.

I was slightly underwhelmed by the first episode in which we heard David Archer and his son Josh musing, independently, on their relationship with each other. I do hope the scriptwriters have got their teeth into some of the stronger stories that were left hanging before the break.

Will we ever get any resolution to the modern slavery story involving Philip and his son Gavin, and, unwittingly, Kirsty who was engaged to Philip? We heard yesterday that the engagement party (which was probably going to turn into a surprise wedding) has been postponed, but what about the ‘horses’? Where is Harrison Burns when we need him?

Fortunately, the final old-style episode ended on a happy note last month with Ed and Emma back together again, just in time for lockdown, which will surely test their relationship to the full.



Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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  • Tony Greaves 26th May '20 - 5:52pm

    It’s not been the same since Grace Archer died in the fire. Or at least since Walter Gabriel gave up driving the school bus.

  • John Marriott 26th May '20 - 7:00pm

    Dennis Folwell, who played Jack Archer, the brother of Phil, played for decades by Norman Painting, and elder son of Dan and Doris Archer, used to live in our village and drank at The Cedars, our local pub. He used to tell us that his real claim to fame was that he was the only son, who was actually older than his mother. You see, actress, Gwen Berryman, who played Doris, was a few years younger than Dennis.

    The story goes that the character of Grace Archer was ‘sacrificed’ by the BBC in an attempt to attract the audience away from the opening night of independent television. Happy days on steam radio, with ‘Dick Barton, Special Agent’, ‘Journey into Space’ and, of course, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ (“I’m worried about Jim”). With BBC TV only operating for a few hours each day, there was really no competition. I still have the 1953 Coronation week edition of the Radio Times. Each day there are double page spreads for the Home Service, Light Programme and the Third Programme and half a page for the day’s TV programmes.

  • The genius of The Archers is that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t listened to it for several years, you can still pick up the characters and the story lines. Perhaps if we could somehow replicate that instant familiarity through a consistent voice and narrative….. ?

  • Gwyn Williams 27th May '20 - 12:17pm

    Could someone remind me. It is many years since the Archers discussed their characters politics. Phil Archer was a Tory, Jill a Liberal and Mark Hebden an SDP councillor. Who was Labour?

  • Phil Beesley 27th May '20 - 1:32pm

    Gwyn Williams: “Could someone remind me. It is many years since the Archers discussed their characters politics. Phil Archer was a Tory, Jill a Liberal and Mark Hebden an SDP councillor.”

    At the start of lockdown I was reading Norman Painting’s history (Forever Ambridge) of the first 25 years. Phil was apparently a Labour man in the 1950s and 1960s — not a socialist but somebody seeking greater equality. I started to listen in the 1980s and at that time Phil was very middle of the road. For Labour, in both senses, go to the Grundys.

    Mary: “Episodes of the soap are written and recorded in six week cycles, some time ahead of the broadcast date.”

    That pattern was established in the early days. Programmes were recorded on tape as episodes, plus the weekly shortened compilation. Tapes were sent out to radio stations overseas. It was thus possible to insert news events into pre-recorded Archers episodes for the UK, but the New Zealand versions would have been different. The 2020 editors obviously concluded that there was no way to insert ‘lockdown’.

  • Phil Beesley 27th May '20 - 2:21pm

    Mary: “Tamsin Grieg, who is much in demand for stage and TV work, still pops back occasionally, but her character Debbie now conveniently lives in Hungary (I can’t remember why).”

    At the end of another soap-disaster-relationship (Simon, the creepy FE/HE lecturer?), Debbie departed to look after Borsetshire Land’s organic farming interests in Hungary. There was a brief love interest story over there but Ms Greig’s schedule became busy and it all fizzled out.

  • Tony Greaves 27th May '20 - 4:12pm

    If Joe Grundy was around now he would be a classic Faragist.

  • suzanne fletcher 27th May '20 - 9:28pm

    I’ve been listening since Adam was born, I was in hospital having Alex at the time. I rather like the lulling monologues, don’t like exciting plot lines, real life here can be bad enough. Gutted that Kirsty has to live with Philip still and he hasn’t been found out.
    In the Brexit debate little was said, just some stilted discussions with various farmers – Grundys had a living to make ( and cider to drink).
    I am sure Pat would be a Green.

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