In Defence of The Archers

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I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-one year old university student who listens to The Archers. You know The Archers, right? That stuffy old show on Radio 4 about farming that your gran sometimes puts on when she does the gardening? Well, I promise you that there’s more to the show than that irritating theme tune which is as intrinsic to Radio 4 as John Humphreys, Women’s Hour or Desert Island Discs. I’d like to explain why I like The Archers, and contest that it isn’t stuffy, boring or dated, but rather an intriguing slice of rural escapism that is worth listening to for the mere thirteen minutes it takes out of your day. Sure, I started listening initially as a silly form of procrastination, but I was quickly hooked and now listening to the show is shamelessly part of my everyday routine.

Its tagline has changed from the somewhat patronising ‘an everyday story of country folk’, to ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. These days, ‘folk’ has slightly derogatory connotations, evoking ideas of ‘simple’ people living in a rose-tinted vision of twee village life. ‘Folks’ has a somewhat working-class, ruffian ‘Otherness’ to it, lending the term to a usage of inclusion or exclusion. There is also the more American semantics of the term, which has become embroiled in much political rhetoric, whereby ‘folks’ names a group of people spoken of negatively, or at least in terms of Otherness; as Liesl Schillinger (2014) relates:

Back in August, the [American] President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.

The folks of The Archers are generally not terrorists or rightwing opponents to Obamacare, but characters deserving of empathy and intrigue in their own right. They are no longer parodies or exaggerated exemplars of ‘country life’. What’s more, the show has its own political and sociological structure: a class system that ranges from fieldwork to managing hotels, age differences, cultural conflicts, economic interests and so on. There are the middle-class characters (the farm-owners, those that have inherited property and business – the Archers themselves), the nouveau riche, the business owners, the farmers, the tycoons that want to build a bypass through the beautiful fields, the cooks, the posh-mums, the drinkers – the, ahem, Scottish character Jazzer (a category of his own) – who would give any edgy ‘contemporary drama’ a run for his money. I mean, just look at his character profile on The Archers’ BBC website:

In wilder times he’s been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he’s shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer’s pigs and Mike Tucker’s milk round.

In fact he’s turned the latter into something of an adventure, befriending one or two of his clients rather too readily. Commitment is not in his dictionary, as many Borsetshire women have discovered.

▪Likes – Music, women, illegal substances

▪Dislikes – Authority, healthy food, spiders

▪Highs – A passionate one-night-only with Fallon Rogers, whom he quietly adores

▪Lows – Nearly killing himself with ketamine

Nearly killing himself with ketamine. Well, that’s not a bland old story about sheep escaping or knitting competitions. In fact, the show enacts a careful balance between the weighty yet more banal issues of farming life (the rise in milk prices, methods of pig farming, village fetes and so on) and the meaty drama – extra-marital affairs, interracial relationships, suicide, sex, illness, crime (including arson, drug-dealing and diamond smuggling), business problems, familial conflicts, the joy of enterprise, childbirth, death. The problem of naming children: that amusing storyline where Lynda is sceptical of posh-lady Leonie’s decision to name her child ‘Mowgli’.

Of course, Jazzer is a pretty much reformed character now, enjoying his sessions at the local pub but working hard for other farmers, but there are plenty of other dramas running through the show. For instance, the other week, we got the show’s take on intergenerational conflicts within feminism. When Helen Archer decides she wants to quit her job running Borsetshire Blue Cheese and become a full-time mum, her mother Pat scolds her for casting aside the opportunities that her generation of feminists created. Why would you want to go back to the 1950s, going bored out of your mind? she asks her daughter. Helen insists it is a choice she – not her fiancé Rob – made, but there is something sinister about this whole situation. Lunch ready on the table for him coming home, shelves sparkling after careful dusting and some flamboyant dinner on the table in the evening. Rob’s crooning voice praising it all, urging her with that underlying patronisation to ‘take a break’ from her hard work. Little Henry, the son, lapping it all up. It’s a thought experiment for contemporary debates within feminism, a storyline that explores a real (albeit predominantly middle class) dilemma between finding childcare and returning to work or being a full-time mum. It will be interesting to see where it goes: will Helen continue enjoying this domestic bliss, or will she go mad with boredom, fall back into identity crisis and her eating-disorder and fall out with Rob with all the wrath of Simone de Beauvoir? Time will tell.

The sexual politics of Ambridge also includes the storyline of Elizabeth and Roy’s affair. Roy had been working for her at Lower Loxley, helping her make the ‘Loxfest’ music festival a success, and generally assisting with the business. But when he fell desperately in love with her, and they slept together twice at two music festivals, things got a bit entangled. I mean, he’s married to Hayley and they have two kids. Soon, Elizabeth’s son Freddie started to catch on, and there was all this Eastenders business about him finding a heart-shaped locket Roy had meant to give to Elizabeth and so on. Freddie went all emo, insulting his mother and locking himself in his room, blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit (I love the show’s representation of teenage angst, I really do). So what happened? Elizabeth sacked Roy because she wanted it to end, and Roy was forced to tell Hayley, his wife. The whole affair has become a dominant, listener-baiting storyline, which provides an insightful representation of the effects of marriage breakup on children. There is something quite visceral about Phoebe (Roy and Hayley’s daughter) and her reaction to finding out from Freddie; she starts to completely ignore or else be really mean to her dad, she runs away to stay at her gran’s, she has general overemotional outbursts. You end up feeling sorry for everyone. Even in its short broadcast time, The Archers gets it right, showing all sides and all motivations. No one is a blanket ‘evil’ character, except perhaps Justin Elliott, CEO of Venture Capitalists Damara, who is entangled in the apocalyptic bypass plans. Indeed, many of the characters in the #SaveAmbridge campaign have a personal vendetta against the man. The show itself, however, reveals all sides of the debate, and it’s an education in town planning, enterprise, social geography as well as ‘everyday country life’.

Of course, The Archers in recent years has been subject to certain controversies, not least for its ‘sexed up’ story-lines, which cost them a few thousand viewers back in 2012. Yet I feel the show balances the odd melodrama with sufficient everyday detail. It’s important to represent storylines about for example, Pat and Tony selling their cattle herd, and young Freddie finding his farmer feet, but the odd marital breakdown, court appearance or sexual awakening doesn’t go amiss in twenty-first century drama. There was even (for a while), a la Hollyoaks, ‘Ambridge Extra’, a spinoff on Radio 4 Extra, which focused on the lives of younger Ambridge characters. Well, there were more affairs and a business trip to Russia where Matt Crawford got tangled with the Mafia and ended up sleeping rough. A far cry from the pleasant bleats of sheep. While adding a bit of intrigue, Ambridge Extra only ran for five series before it was axed. Perhaps it was all just a bit too racy for ‘the common listener’. Or maybe it was just that not enough traditional listeners knew how to access it online (since BBC 4 Extra is a digital channel, unlike Radio 4).

There is, furthermore, something a bit postmodern about The Archers. For one thing, it creates an intriguing blur between fact and fiction, often edited last minute to include contemporary real life events as they unfold. For example, the show portrayed reactions to 9/11, the badger cull, the foot and mouth crisis, the London bombings. It corresponds roughly to the progression of real time, so that Christmas comes in Ambridge when Christmas comes in, well, the World Itself. This is one of the biggest appeals for me: the way seasonal changes and events play out in a fictional alterreality, so that I can hear about lambing and cropping and horse riding and so on even while I’m in the city. A lot of my school friends were farmers, so there’s also a bit of nostalgia there too. Perhaps for other listeners, it’s a certain curiosity about what life is like in the farming world, and as we have seen, The Archers does not paint an idyllic utopia of organic food and harmonious living. Like some Biblical fable, there are the floods, fires and diseases too.

Moreover, the show even pulls in real celebrities for cameo appearances. The summer season in Ambridge was perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic Loxfest (which was wracked with drama when the headline act were pulled out following sexual assault charges to the lead singer). Heroically, The Pet Shop Boys (the actual Pet Shop Boys!) appeared to fill in the missing headline slot, chatting away to David Sedaris and Lynda Snell backstage in a hilarious celeb moment. Then there was the culmination of all things twee and middle-class in Ambridge, when Kirsty Allsopp appeared to open the annual village fete. With Olympic fever hanging over the town, Sir Bradley Wiggins helped out at the Sport Relief Rough and Tumble Challenge (incidentally, in true Archers style, Bradley had to witness Ian punching Rob at said event). The celeb appearances add to the strange reality of the show, existing as it does in a kind of Austen-esque ‘made-up but real’ village and province. Radio drama, as a form, also involves the listener a lot more in producing meaning than say, television soap operas do. For one, you have to imagine the events playing out in your head, and so there is always that extra level of interpretation involved. The snappy but daily appearance of the show also facilitates ongoing Twitter conversations, where users’ comments often provide vital feedback for the show’s producers, who care about what people want out of the drama. Listeners get involved even more directly by playing out the show’s storylines; there is, for example, a Twitter account for the campaign to save Ambridge from commercial development (see @SAVEAmbridge).

the black sheep of contemporary drama?
the black sheep of contemporary drama?

And I’m glad that The Archers gets more podcast downloads than the likes of Radio 1’s Scott Mills (cough, crap chart music, cough). It shows that sometimes, what people want is a quick-fix of juicy drama but also the escapism and emotional provocation it provides. The Archers is like an on-going collection of flash fictions, weaving together a rhizomatic assemblage of over 60 characters whose presence infects one another’s storylines and transforms our vision of the village through complex and engaging storylines. In our digital age, the short slice of drama that the show offers is perfect listening, and you can download the episodes as podcasts or wait for the 75-minute omnibus edition on Sundays. I think we are getting a bit of a rural revival lately, with the likes of Jack Thorne’s crime drama Glue fuelling this interest in the dramatic landscapes of the countryside. Glue, a somewhat slow-burning series, offers at least beautiful camera work and acclaimed representation of the Romani community, as well as everyday elements of farm-life – the early mornings, the milkings. Yes, there are elements of D. H. Lawrence style romanticising (the racy hay-bail sex scene, for instance) but there is also gritty reality, the criminal undertones of the local community. Where I’m from, the ‘Young Farmer’s Association’ was associated predominantly with Saturday night escapades of binge-drinking, Ceilidh dancing and alfresco lovemaking (albeit also bridge-playing and flower-arranging contests), so maybe all this racy rural drama isn’t entirely inaccurate. Either way, I hope I’ve persuaded you to give The Archers a go. It’s less than 15 minutes, after all.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qpgr

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/glue/4od

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10423564/The-Archers-is-always-on-the-cutting-edge-new-editor-insists.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11162615/Archers-fans-not-put-off-by-racy-storylines.html

http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/oct/15/the-archers-bbc-podcast-list-radio-4

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Archers

Schillinger, Lisa, 2014. ‘“Hi, Folks.”: How a once-friendly, neighbourly word – “folks” – became a quiet sort of insult’ in Matter, Available at: <https://medium.com/matter/how-a-once-friendly-neighborly-word-folks-became-a-quiet-sort-of-insult-c54e05b6a069> [Accessed 19.10.14].

Places of Memory

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Glasgow Uni spire seen from Kelvingrove Park

There is a sense in which selfhood is just a scattering of remembrances, remembrances dependent on places. Everywhere in which I have been encodes some trail, some trace of memory. As a child whenever we went on walks I would magic things into being, imagining worlds on top of worlds, layering enchanted spaces and creatures upon the reality of adolescent landscapes. I’d see fantastic beings darting in rocky streams, strange birds sweeping from forest canopies, a thousand intriguing microbes, exotic in colour, swirling on the ground amidst the paws of my (real-life) dog. And even as I grow older, shedding away these whimsical worlds, I keep the magic of perception, imbuing the places I visit with a mental significance. As some store their spatial memories in smartphones, clicking them into flattened snapshots, I try to inscribe them in my mind as networks of sentiment – of senses, thought and memory. There is this particular spot in Kelvingrove Park, with the perfect view of the Glasgow Uni spire and a quiet pool of sunlight that occurs in May at about 4 o’clock; the spot where after my first year exams I sat lazily making daisy chains and reading Laurie Lee’s nostalgically beautiful Cider With Rosie. There is that salt smell and clacking of pebbles, the quick breeze that is Brighton Beach and with it many far off summers, of paddling cold feet and minty sticks of rock. Weird innocence. There is that favourite place in Culzean, a small jutting of cliff that looks out to a glittering dusk-covered ocean and the eerie mound of the Ailsa Craig. So many times I have sat up there with various friends and family and each time I am a different person, bound together perhaps only by the chains of associations set off by this location. Although I was brought up in the country, my mind is also a sprawl of urban spaces: the wintry, bustling streets of Paris at New Year, the seagull strewn alleyways of Ayr, Glasgow’s gritty pavements and eclectic skyline of the modern and the gothic, Edinburgh with its panoramic view of hillside, castle, parliament and sea. What makes all these places somehow special is my relationship to them both cognitively and spatially – in other words, psychogeographically – a sense of pulsating interconnections based on walking, on exploring the world on foot.

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Ailsa Craig

Someone who has written extensively on his psychogeographic travels is the author Will Self, who ambles everywhere, in the search for new perspectives of space – walking famously from his house in England to New York (albeit with the help of an aeroplane), exploring the curious border spaces between urban and rural, airport and field. Self worries that in the contemporary world of globalisation and machine transport, we are becoming increasingly confined to ‘micro-worlds’ which offer restricted, miniature universes of hotels, airports, clubs and bars that bear little difference from city to city, in the sense that they are being used for the same purpose, and we rarely escape them. The frequency with which tourists, travellers and the like will take a taxi cab, subway or train rather than exploring on foot results in a limited perspective of urban space. There is no chance to stand back and observe one’s situatedness in relation to the built environment, to gauge one’s relationship to north, to the cathedral, the river; to form the intricate networks of association and recollection that pattern themselves around street-walking. I want to make a plea for this street-walking, not just as a fitness alternative to the stuffy mundanity of the gym but as an exercise in perception, in self-formation. (Sometimes, sounding pretentious or perhaps overly poetic is worth getting my point across, especially if it’s a pretty simple point about the joys of that most archaic of sports: walking.)

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street in Dowanhill

I feel like I’m naturally bad at driving. I don’t like being in control of a dangerous vehicle; yes, that’s one reason, and a reason certainly more justified after delving into J. G. Ballard’s dystopian account of sex, violence and dangerous driving in Crash. The car, as a vehicle of speed charged with the excitement of modernity – see Marinetti’s ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ – is the antithesis of the slow pacing of walking. With a great driving instructor, I took lessons for over a year and while I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my small town and gliding (at my shy snail’s pace) along country roads, I don’t think I’m cut out to drive powerful vehicles. Even a bike I manage only at a push. I spend too long getting distracted by pretty sunsets, sheep, or the name of a passing cafe.

So I guess rather than machine-obsessed Marinetti, I’m more aligned with the modernism of the flâneur, the original ‘street-walker’ who spent his/her time sauntering the streets (usually of Paris) and losing his/herself in the crowd. Charles Baudelaire describes the flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life: 

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.

There is something strangely ‘natural’ in becoming a liminal figure, between observation and participation, haunting the city streets and drinking the atmosphere of the crowd as if it were the very sustenance of life itself. Moreover, this sense of haunting can be literal, as stepping among a wealth of sensations recalls dreaded memories and fugue states of psychological wandering, as the narrator of Jean Rhys’ novel, Good Morning, Midnight suggests:

Twelve o’clock on a fine autumn day, and nothing to worry about. Some money to spend and nothing to worry about.
But careful, careful! Don’t get excited. You know what happens when you get excited and exalted, don’t you?….Yes….And then, you know how you collapse like a pricked balloon, don’t you ? Having no staying power….Yes, exactly….So, no excitement. This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafes, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully. The thing is to have a programme, not to leave any thing to chance – no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramophone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if I can help it.
Thinking all this, I pass the exact place for my after dinner drink. It’s a cafe on the Avenue de l’Observatoire, which always seems to be empty. I remember it like this before.

The narrator, Sasha, speaks in ellipses, in the strange silences and drifting prose of a vagabond, losing her mind to the networks of memory that haunt and map out her present.

And while Rhys’ flaneur is at times made painfully aware of herself by her own solitude amidst the Parisian crowds, sometimes in the city, one actually craves the claustrophobia of people and buildings and even the nasty proliferation of pigeons. It is maybe a kind of sublime, where one forgets one’s self in the overwhelming hustle and bustle. I remember my first time walking into Glasgow city centre on foot via Argyle and St Vincent Street. Standing breathless at the crossing of the A804 I looked up to the massive glass-coated buildings, beaming off bright April sunlight. There’s a feeling there that I don’t think I’ll ever quite replicate, that of a young adult from a little town, now encountering for the first time alone the vastness and slightly daunting excitement of the metropolis. It is a vision of the city infinitely different from seeing the big buildings from the safety of the backseat of a car; a vision that seems much more urgent on foot, with the vehicles rushing around you and the commercial structures seeming so much grander from the pavement. And it is funny now, how I walk past these buildings so often and they seem diminished; I have adopted more of a blasé, Simmelian attitude to an urban environment that once appeared so compelling. The only solution to this, of course, is to explore new places, gain new perspectives.

It isn’t easy to explore new places when you are notoriously bad at navigation. I didn’t take Modern Studies over Geography for nothing; I genuinely find it a problem grasping my location through maps, to mentally situate myself. Instead of compass coordinates or street names, I tend to place myself in relation to strange landmarks: a telephone box with wild flowers sprouting out the side, an antique shop where the man sits outside polishing wood and making sandwiches, a crumbling wall or peculiar tree that grows by a river. My brain is more of a mesh of colours and markers than a standardised map of labelled coordinates; I know my space through unstable nodes of remembered landmarks which shift and change  and alter my spatial awareness. Perhaps this is why Glasgow (or even just the West End) no longer seems the same, huge place it once did when I first came to uni. Perhaps this is why I always tend to get lost in new places, because I can’t follow a steady route without getting distracted by the allure of a pretty residential estate or a path that detours miles along a canal.

An example of this is my sense of Victoria Park. Victoria Park often comes up weirdly in Limmy’s Show as a place where the fences demand repainting, but that isn’t my only notion of it. Victoria Park is a strange place in its location: a kind of island of green surrounded by motorway. And it is quite difficult to get to, requiring knowledge of the underpass and the correct entrances. I’m better at it now, but before I used to set out for it, following the trail set out by my portable Google Map, and then get confused and lost, ending up wandering aimlessly around Whiteinch. I don’t really know why I forgot how to get there, after the first time I stumbled across it. It flashed in my mind only as a bizarre mirage, almost like Mirage Island from Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, appearing to me only on certain days when the weather was right and I was in the proper frame of mind necessary for navigation. I actually had to search online for photos of the place, to make sure I really had been there, to make sure it existed at all. The seeming elusiveness of the Park gave it an ethereal quality that remains today, even though I have now memorised exactly the route to get there.  And it’s not that difficult at all, really. Barely thirty minutes from my flat. Yet arriving upon that still, wide silver pond with its hordes of swans, I feel like I have found a peaceful, otherworldly territory. And then I hear the Glaswegian accent of a fellow walker with his dog, and the illusion shatters somewhat.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Glasgow is peppered with these secret spaces, and as the old etymology goes, it is in a strong sense a ‘dear green place’. There are so many parks and walkways I have yet to discover. I have found canals and strolls along the river, where you could be anywhere – until you spot a stunning piece of architecture peeping through the trees. And like all the places of my childhood, I feel like Glasgow is now a part of me: I have a  hidden history that exists among the old buildings, the pretty parks and streets. I don’t think I’d have such a strong sense of rootedness if I hadn’t explored the city always on foot; if I’d always gotten the Clockwork Orange (the subway) rather than meandering through various roots to town, would I have stumbled upon Park Circus, or the spring blossom that lights up Great Western Road? Living in the country is lovely, but when you are in a city, all it takes is a walk out the door and down a few streets and suddenly you are part of a crowd; not just a crowd of people, but a crowd of forgotten memories and historic spirits, of buildings that bear the souls of all those who have set foot inside them. The city has a certain music to it, different from the birdsong and breeze and tractor groans of the country, lively and beautiful and ambient all the same. Personally, I believe that you can only experience this music in its pure form by using your good old legs and walking the  metropolis. I’d like to end with one of my favourite passages of psychogeography, from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus is discovering Dublin for the first time:

Dublin was a new and complex sensation. […] In the beginning he contented himself with circling timidly round the neighbouring square or, at most, going half way down one of the side streets but when he had made a skeleton map of the city in his mind he followed boldly one of its central lines until he reached the customhouse. He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays wondering at the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded policeman. The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened again in him theunrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes. And amid this new bustling life he might have fancied himself in another Marseille but that hemissed the bright sky and the sum-warmed trellises of the wineshops.

Yes, I’ll leave you with that lovely, assonant image of sun-warmed trellises and bright skies and wineshops…because it’s always nice to imagine a sunnier world on top of the real one.

(all photos taken by me)