The Archers logo used on the BBC website
|Running time||12 minutes (formerly 15 minutes)|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|Home station||BBC Light Programme
later BBC Home Service
now BBC Radio 4
|Created by||Godfrey Baseley|
|Edited by||Huw Kennair-Jones|
|Produced by||Julie Beckett|
|Recording studio||BBC Birmingham|
|Original release||29 May – 2 June 1950 (Pilot)
1 January 1951 – present
|No. of episodes||18,332 (as of 25 June 2017)
Six per week, plus 75 mins. omnibus
|Audio format||Stereophonic sound|
|Opening theme||Barwick Green|
|Podcast||The Archers podcast|
The Archers is the world's longest-running radio soap opera. The British production, which has had more than 18,300 episodes, is broadcast on Radio 4, the BBC's main spoken-word channel. Originally billed as "an everyday story of country folk", it is now described as "contemporary drama in a rural setting".
Five pilot episodes were aired in 1950 and the first episode was broadcast nationally on 1 January 1951. A significant show in British popular culture, and with over five million listeners, it is Radio 4's most listened-to non-news programme, With over one million listeners via the internet, the programme holds the record for BBC Radio online listening figures.
Originally established to educate farmers and thus increase food production after World War II, The Archers rapidly became a major source of entertainment for urban as well as rural audiences, attracting nine million listeners by 1953.
The Archers is set in the fictional village of Ambridge in the fictional county of Borsetshire, in the English Midlands. Borsetshire is situated between, in reality, the contiguous counties of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, south of Birmingham in the West Midlands. Various villages claim to be the inspiration for Ambridge: Ambridge's public house, The Bull, is modelled on The Old Bull in Inkberrow, whereas Hanbury's St Mary the Virgin is often used as a stand-in for Ambridge's parish church, St Stephen's.
Other fictional villages include Penny Hassett, Loxley Barrett, Darrington, Hollerton, Edgeley, Waterley Cross and Lakey Green. The county town of Borsetshire is Borchester, and the nearest big city is the cathedral city of Felpersham. Felpersham also has a university. Anywhere further from Ambridge may be referred to humorously with comments such as 'that's on the other side of Felpersham!', but characters do occasionally venture further: several attended the Countryside Alliance march in London, there have been references to the gay scene in Manchester's Canal Street, and a number of scenes have taken place abroad or in other places around the country, with some characters resident overseas in South Africa and Hungary, and other characters have visited Norfolk. Birmingham is a favourite destination for shopping.
Since Easter Sunday 1998, there have been six episodes a week from Sunday to Friday, after the news summary at around 19:02. All except the Friday evening episode are repeated the following day at 14:02. The six episodes are re-run unabridged in the Sunday morning omnibus at 10:00. On Remembrance Sunday, the Omnibus edition begins at the earlier time of 09:15. This information is available in the press and on the BBC's website.
These are the main sites in the village:
Unlike some soap operas, episodes of The Archers portray events taking place on the date of broadcast, allowing many topical subjects to be included. Real-life events which can be readily predicted in advance are often written into the script, such as the annual Oxford Farming Conference and the FIFA World Cup. On some occasions, scenes recorded at these events are planned and edited into episodes shortly before transmission.
More challengingly for the production team, some significant but unforeseen events require scenes to be rewritten and rerecorded at short notice, such as the death of Princess Margaret (particularly poignant because she had appeared as herself on the programme), the World Trade Center attacks, and the 7 July 2005 London bombings. The events and implications of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis required many "topical inserts" and the rewriting of several storylines.
In January 2012, Oliver Sterling, owner of Grange Farm, together with his tenant, Ed Grundy, elected to vaccinate the badgers on their farm in an attempt to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The plotline came within weeks of the government confirming a badger cull trial.
Unlike television soaps, The Archers actors are not held on retainers and work on the series usually for a few days a month. Most of the cast do acting work on other projects and can disappear for a period if they are working on long-term commitments such as films or television series. For example, Tamsin Greig, who plays Debbie Aldridge, has appeared on television comedy shows such as Green Wing, Love Soup, Black Books and, most recently, Episodes. As a result, Debbie manages a farm in Hungary in which her family has an interest while Greig is filming these shows, and then returns to Ambridge when Greig's commitments allow. Because of this, and by the nature of the storylines concentrating on particular groups of characters, in any week the series comprises between 20 and 30 speaking characters out of a regular cast of about 60. Greig's situation was similar to that of Felicity Jones who played Emma Carter in the series; Jones, after a period studying at Wadham College, Oxford has moved into large TV parts, such as a starring role in Northanger Abbey. Emma Carter is now played by Emerald O'Hanrahan.
Some of the actors, when not playing their characters, earn their money through different jobs altogether: Charlotte Connor, when not playing Susan Carter (credited as Charlotte Martin), works full-time as a senior research psychologist at the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation; her office is a short walk from BBC Birmingham, and thus she is able to fit her work around recordings. Meanwhile, Graham Blockey, who plays Robert Snell, worked till recently as a full-time General Practioner in Surrey, commuting to and from BBC Birmingham at weekends and on his days off. He kept his role secret from his patients, for fear of losing their respect, until his retirement from medicine in March, 2017. Other examples include Felicity Finch (Ruth Archer), who also works as a BBC journalist having travelled on a number of occasions to Afghanistan; and Ian Pepperell (Roy Tucker), who manages a pub in the New Forest.
A five-episodes pilot series started on Whit Monday, 29 May 1950, and continued throughout that week. It was created by Godfrey Baseley and was broadcast to the English Midlands in the Regional Home Service, as 'a farming Dick Barton'. Recordings were sent to London, and the BBC decided to commission the series for a longer national run. In the five pilots the Archers owned Wimberton Farm, rather than Brookfield. Baseley subsequently edited The Archers for 22 years.
Since 1 January 1951, five 15-minute episodes (since 1998, six 12½-minute episodes) have been transmitted each week, at first on the BBC Light Programme and subsequently on the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4). Early afternoon repeats of the previous evening's episode began on 14 December 1964. The original scriptwriters were Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason, who were also working on the nightly thriller series about the special agent Dick Barton. The popularity of his adventures partly inspired The Archers, which eventually took over Barton's evening slot. At first, however, the national launch placed the serial at the 'terrible' time of 11.45am, but it moved to Dick Barton's former slot of 6.45pm from Monday, 2 April 1951. An omnibus edition of the week's episodes began on Saturday, 5 January 1952. Originally produced with collaborative input from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, The Archers was conceived as a means of disseminating information to farmers and smallholders to help increase productivity in the post-World War II years of rationing and food shortages. It was originally formulated around the lives of three farmers; Dan Archer, farming efficiently with little cash, Walter Gabriel, farming inefficiently with little cash, and George Fairbrother, a wealthy businessman farming at a loss for tax purposes (which one could do in those days). The programme was hugely successful, winning the National Radio Awards' 'Most entertaining programme of the Year' award jointly with Take It From Here in 1954, and winning the award outright in 1955, in which year the audience was reported to have peaked at 20 million.
At the late 1950s, despite the growth of television and radio's consequent decline, the programme was still claiming eleven million listeners and was also being transmitted in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. By the mid-'70s, however, the audience for the two daily broadcasts and the weekend omnibus combined was less than 3 million and in 1976 the BBC Radio Four Review Board twice considered whether or not the programme should be axed. The serial's woes at this time were seen to mirror the poor standing of radio drama in general, described as "a failure to fully shake off the conventions of non-realism which had prevailed in the 1940s and 1950s." Programme chief Jock Gallagher, responsible for The Archers, described these as the serial's "dog days". Sweeping editorial reforms followed, included the introduction of women writers (there had been none before 1975), two of whom, Helen Leadbeater and Margaret Phelan, were credited with giving the programme a new definitive style of writing and content, although some listeners complained about their radical feminism. In 1980 Julie Burchill commented that the women of Ambridge were no longer stuck with "the gallons of greengage jam old-guard male scriptwriters kept them occupied with for over twenty years"; but were 'into post-natal depression and alcoholism on the way to self-discovery'. By the mid-'80s the Radio Four Review Board noted that scripts, directing and acting was "very good" and sometimes "better than ever". In August 1985 The Listener said that the programme's revival was "sustained by some of the best acting, direction and writing on radio."
Tony Shryane MBE was the programme's producer from 1 January 1951 to 19 January 1979. Vanessa Whitburn was the programme's editor from 1992 till 2013. Whitburn took service leave from March to July 2012, when John Yorke, a former executive producer of EastEnders, was the acting editor. Yorke's arrival prompted charges that the programme was importing the values of EastEnders to Borsetshire, with fans and commentators complaining that characters were behaving unrealistically simply to generate conflict. This was denied by Yorke, who wrote that he agreed to take over "on one condition - that it stayed exactly as it was and that I didn't have to change anything."
One of the most controversial Archers episodes was broadcast on 22 September 1955, the evening of the launch of the UK's first commercial television station, ITV. Phil and Grace Archer had been married just a few months earlier, and their blossoming relationship was the talk of the nation. However, searching for a story which would demonstrate some real tragedy among the increasingly unconvincing episode cliff-hangers, Godfrey Baseley had decided that Grace would have to die. It was explained to the cast as an "exercise in topicality. " The scripts for the week of 19 September 1955 were written, recorded, and broadcast on each day. On Thursday evening of that week, listeners heard Grace trying to rescue her horse, Midnight, from a fire at Brookfield stables, and the crash as a beam fell on her.
Whether the timing of the episode was a deliberate attempt to overshadow the opening night of the BBC's first commercial rival has been debated ever since. It was certainly planned some months in advance, but it may well be that the actual date of the death was changed during the scriptwriting stage to coincide with the start of ITV. Deliberate or not, the episode attracted widespread media attention, being reported by newspapers around the world.
This controversy has been parodied twice: in "The Bowmans", an episode of the television comedy programme Hancock, and in the play and film The Killing of Sister George. On the 50th anniversary of ITV's launch, Ysanne Churchman, who played Grace, sent a congratulatory card to ITV, signed "Grace Archer".
In 1996, William Smethurst recounted a conversation with Baseley in which he reveals his real motivation for killing off Grace Archer: Churchman was encouraging the other actors to join a trade union.
The actor Norman Painting played Phil Archer continuously from the first trial series in 1950 until his death on 29 October 2009. His last Archers performance was recorded just two days before his death, and was broadcast on 22 November. He is cited in Guinness World Records as the longest-serving actor in a single soap opera. Under the pseudonym "Bruno Milna", Painting also wrote around 1,200 complete episodes, which culminated in the 10,000th episode.
June Spencer has played Peggy Archer/Woolley from the pilot episode onwards, though not for all of the period since. According to Who's Who in The Archers 2008, episode 15,360 was to be broadcast on 1 January 2008. Episode 15,000 was broadcast on 7 November 2006.
The Archers reached its 60th anniversary on 1 January 2011 and to mark this achievement, a special half-hour episode was broadcast on Sunday, 2 January, on BBC Radio 4 from 7pm. The episode had been advertised as containing events that would "shake Ambridge to the core". This phrase even gave rise to the initialism #SATTC trending on the website Twitter during that weekend as listeners speculated about what might happen, and then reported their views as the story unfolded.
The main events in the episode were Helen Archer giving birth to her son Henry and Nigel Pargetter falling to his death from the roof of Lower Loxley Hall. This unlikely event provoked interest in the frequency and causes of death in the series. In fact, although the incidence of accidental death and suicide is seven times the national average, the overall mortality rate in Ambridge is almost exactly what would be expected.
The writing out of the character of Nigel caused much controversy among listeners, with a large number of complaints variously expressing dismay at the death of a popular character, concerns over the manner of the dismissal of the actor, belief that the promise to "shake Ambridge to the core" had been over-hyped, criticism of the credibility of the script and acting for the anniversary episode, and a perceived unwillingness of the editorial team to engage with these listener complaints.
Sometimes mocked by some as a comfortable, middle-class series with stereotypical comic yokels, the programme has nonetheless tackled many serious, contemporary social issues: rural drug addiction; rape, including rape in marriage; inter-racial relationships; direct action against genetically modified crops and badger culling; family break-ups; and civil partnerships, and a family being threatened by a gang of farm thieves. There has been criticism from conservative commentators, such as Peter Hitchens that the series has become a vehicle for liberal and left-wing values and agendas, with characters behaving out of character to achieve those goals. However, one of the show's charms is to make much out of everyday, small concerns, such as the possible closure of the village shop, the loss and rediscovery of a pair of spectacles, competitive marmalade-making, or nonsense such as a 'spile troshing' competition, rather than the large-scale and improbable events that form the plots of many soap operas.
According to some of the actors, and confirmed in the writings of Godfrey Baseley, in its early days the show was used as a conduit for educational announcements from the Ministry of Agriculture, one actor reading an announcement almost verbatim to another. Direct involvement of the government ended in 1972. The show has reacted within a day to agricultural emergencies such as outbreaks of foot and mouth disease which affect farmers nationwide when livestock movements are restricted.
Many famous people have made cameo appearances on the programme:
The theme tune of The Archers is called "Barwick Green" and is a maypole dance from the suite My Native Heath, written in 1924 by the Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood. An alternative arrangement, played by The Yetties, is used to introduce the Sunday omnibus.
A library music recording of Barwick Green was used for the pilot and during the early years of the national version, because a bid by Godfrey Baseley to have a special theme composed had been turned down on the grounds of cost, put at £250-£300. However, once the serial had become undeniably established, a new recording of Barwick Green was authorised and performed by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra on 24 March 1954. This mono recording was also accompanied by four movements entitled "A Village Suite", composed by Kenneth Pakeman to complement Barwick Green. Excerpts from these movements were then used for a time as bridging music between scenes. The 1954 recordings were never made available to the public and their use was restricted even inside the BBC, partly because of an agreement with the Musicians' Union.
In 1992 the theme was re-recorded in stereo, retaining the previous arrangements. The venue was Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the conductor Ron Goodwin, producer David Welsby and the sound mixer Norman McLeod. The slightly different sound mixing and more leisurely tempo reportedly led some listeners to consider the new version inferior, specifically that it lacked "brio", although the BBC publicised the fact that the orchestra contained some of the musicians who had played in the previous recording, including Harold Rich (piano) and Norman Parker (percussion).
Robert Robinson once compared the tune to "the genteel abandon of a lifelong teetotaller who has suddenly taken to drink". On April Fool's Day 2004 both The Independent and The Today Programme claimed that BBC executives had commissioned composer Brian Eno to record an electronic version of "Barwick Green" as a replacement for the current theme, while the (Scottish) comedian Billy Connolly included in his act the joke that the theme was so typically English that it should be the national anthem.
In 2009, British comedian Rainer Hersch conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of the theme, live from the Royal Festival Hall to a listening BBC Radio 3 audience in an attempt to confuse them. He then went on to show how similar it is to "Montagues and Capulets" - "Dance of the Knights" - from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, claiming that this was a result of Russian spies going through the BBC's rubbish bins looking for the scripts.
English doctors are taught that the tempo of the tune is the rate at which to apply cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Alternative tunes used for this purpose include "Nellie the Elephant", Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" and the Bee Gees' hit "Stayin' Alive" which have the same tempo.
At times, a cliffhanger involving a death of a major character or a disaster was marked by the traditional closing theme being replaced by the final dramatic section of Barwick Green involving trombones, cymbals and the closing bars of the signature tune. However, this tradition has been dropped more recently, such as the death of Nigel Pargetter when the normal closing music was played despite the gravity of the incident.
The Dream of Gerontius was played following the death of Phil Archer. When John Archer died no music was played.
There was a nod to The Archers in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London on 27 July 2012, where the theme tune was played at the beginning of a segment celebrating British culture: the sound of a radio could be heard being tuned in as Barwick Green was played.
BBC Radio 4 Extra ran an occasional short supplement, Ambridge Extra, between 2011 and 2013, featuring characters away from the Ambridge environs. Series 1 and 2 had 26 episodes and series 3, 4 and 5 had 20. The reason offered for non-renewal was limited resources.
Two organisations dedicated to the programme were established in the 1990s. Archers Addicts was the official body, run by members of the cast. The club had five thousand members and an online shop where Archers memorabilia was sold under licence. It closed as a club on 31 December 2013 but still has a Facebook page and Twitter feed. Archers Anarchists was formed some time later, objecting to the "castist" assumptions propagated by the BBC, and claiming that the characters are real.
In 1994, the BBC World Service in Afghanistan began broadcasting Naway Kor, Naway Jwand ("New Home, New Life"), an everyday story of country folk incorporating pieces of useful information. Although the useful information was more likely to concern unexploded land mines and opium addiction than the latest modern farming techniques, the inspiration and model of Naway Kor, Naway Jwand was The Archers, and the initial workshopping with Afghan writers included an Archers scriptwriter. A 1997 study found that listeners to the soap opera were significantly less likely to be injured by a mine than non-listeners.
The Japanese NHK, offers a "morning drama" (asadora) that runs for 15 minutes from Monday to Saturday on television. This slot was established on radio in the early postwar era and moved to television in 1961. Each series lasts six months, i. e. approximately 150 episodes. All centre on a heroine, usually a young girl facing challenges (usually in Japanese traditional social ways) to realize her dream. Programmes have often been used as vehicles for discussion of matters of social concern, such as the foster-child system, and to celebrate the locales around Japan where the series are set.
Tony Hancock created "The Bowmans"— a spoof-edition of the Archers—in an episode of the BBC television situation comedy programme Hancock, featuring a new cast which included Constance Chapman and Richard Carpenter.
John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme has parodied The Archers with its recurring "The Archers Accidentally" sketches; the sketches claim to portray The Archers the way it sounds to people who only listen to the show inadvertently.
The radio series of Dead Ringers has frequently parodied characters from The Archers, including a special edition.
The subtitle was parodied by Bill Tidy in his long-running cartoon of The Cloggies, "an Everyday Saga in the Life of Clog Dancing Folk", which ran in the satirical magazine Private Eye, and later in The Listener.
Even this presupposes that the BBC realized the impact that the 'death' would have — and all the evidence is that the BBC was totally taken by surprise.
'She was trying to get the actors to join a trade union,' he told the author of this book, in 1995, 'so I killed her off. Very few of the original actors were professionals. I'd taken them on because they were countrymen with natural country voices. But she was stirring them up and trying to get them to join the actors' union, and saying we should only employ union actors, which would have been fatal.'
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