60 years of reasons why the UK’s best soap is a radio showPosted: January 2, 2011
I’m an Archers listener, and despite lengthy flirtations with TV soaps including Eastenders (for most of the 90s), and Melrose Place (likewise), for the last many, many years, The Archers has been the only soap that I’ve actually followed.
The show celebrated its 60th anniversary this weekend (yes – it is the longest running drama show on either radio or TV in these islands, perhaps in the world, comfortably beating Coronation Street by nearly a decade) and it did so in it’s traditional and far more realistic style, the success of which is what has kept it on the air and popular for so many years.
Unlike the TV soaps, which regularly stage “‘spectaculars” to mark important events, or to grab audience share, which seemingly have few reverberating consequences, The Archers tends to use what I would describe as a “slow-cooker approach” to plotting, which I find much more believable and realistic.
In the extended anniversary episode, broadcast tonight, there were no plane crashes or tram smashes to bring spectacular destruction. The main inhabitants of the village of Ambridge celebrated New Year, a baby was born a little early after a scare, and a much loved husband fell (presumably to his death) from a high roof, upon which he had climbed with his brother in law to untie a festive banner.
The (presumed) death of Nigel Pargetter will not only play out in a series of consequences, slowly, over the next many months, but will amplify and re-stress storylines that have built over the last 10 to 15 years of on-off resentment between his wife/widow Elizabeth, and her brother David, who will now be perceived to be at fault for the calamity.
That’s how The Archers does stuff, slowly, at real-life speed, over long, long years or even decades.
Take for example Jack Wolley and his wife Peggy.
When Jack, one day in 2003 forgot that he had granted an employee a day off, but was discovered to be in the wrong, it was the first of many seeds of an Alzheimers storyline which would not even begin to become overt until a couple of years later.
This storyline has carried on, gradually, over the last 7 years, only recently progressing to the stage where he could remember so little, and had become so confused, that Peggy had to make the agonising decision to put him in a home. And he will live, in that home, for some time yet before he is killed off. Contrast that to the TV soaps.
About 3 years or so after Jack’s storyline began, an Alzheimers storyline was introduced for a regular in Coronation Street, who progressed from being totally without symptom, through the different stages at breakneck speed, and was dead within the year.
The slow, lifelike pace of The Archers imbues it with great depth, and often pathos, such as the way in which we could remember and contrast Jack’s memory and behaviour with Peggy over a number of successive wedding anniversaries, Christmases etc.
The fact that very often The Archers is a comforting slice of life in which “nothing happens” (because plots are not driven at breakneck speed, there do not have to be a million things going on in any individual episode) can make it strangely soothing.
I well remember, on the day of the London tube bombings, after hours and hours of broadcasts filled with doom and disaster, how refreshing that jangly theme tune sounded at two minutes past 7pm.
Somewhere, somehow, life was going on, and that was comforting. This even though the episode itself did include reaction to the events (as a radio soap, quick edits can be made, and certain pairs of actors are on call for quick response to major events in real life, so a disaster, or a royal engagement, or an election result from today can be slipped seamlessly into casual conversation in an episode)
The other great brilliance of the show is down to its medium – radio.
I’ve always believed radio drama of infinite superiority to television, simply because of it’s book-like ability to let me use my own imagination. I have my own image of what central couple David and Ruth Archer look like, my own mental map of the landscape, and the picture I imagined of Nigel falling from that high rooftop tonight was more vivid and scary than any that TV could produce.
The Archers is 60 – long may it continue.