WILL SELF: The Archers’ struggle to remain relevant during the pandemic

Charles Collingwood plays Brian Aldridge in the Archers. Photo: BBC

Charles Collingwood plays Brian Aldridge in the Archers. Photo: BBC - Credit: BBC

WILL SELF says the Radio 4 drama has a 'wet-dog-smelling' feel to the programme.

I return, once more, to the subject of the Archers – that long-running radio soap opera about the everyday lives of rural folk that's a sort of synecdoche of our national life. Indeed, given Radio 4 is also a sort of synecdoche of our national life (if, that is, we're middle class), while the BBC can be considered in this light, too; I think it not altogether wrong to view the Archers as a mise en abyme, pointing the way – by reason of this infinite regress – towards the real terms of our existence. What is it that Pope writes in his Essay on Man? Ah yes: 'Who sees with equal eye, as God of all / A hero perish, or a sparrow fall / Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd / And now a bubble burst, and now a world.'

The world of the Archers burst along with everyone else's when the pandemic struck. Actors in general have had a dreadful time – but radio actors, for whom standing at microphones in a spray of saliva is de rigueur, anyway, have had it particularly hard. For a while the BBC tried the parallel world approach: continuing the action of the soap opera as if Covid-19 and the lockdown existed in an alternative universe; one which had, quite possibly, split off from our own at some arbitrary causal juncture – between, as it were, the lip and the cup. But of course this wasn't going to work for long. Attentive listeners doubtless began to wonder when the next fission would occur – would the Grundys ferment a batch of cider so strong it propelled all of Borsetshire into a Dionysian dithyramb? Or could Justin Elliott continue Borchester Land's ruthless expansion by annexing… Poland?

In order to forestall such a cosmic solecism, the BBC then took another tack, and began running old episodes of the soap. This recursive solution had some validity – not least because many Archers listeners are probably like me, and drop in and out of its aural swaddling with all the attentiveness of a child smoothing nap on a piece of velvet. But also because despite all its producers' and scriptwriters' attempts to be modish, there remains something quintessentially tweedy-textured and wet-dog-smelling about the programme. It also took me a while to realise they actually were running repeats, because there's a timeless, near-circadian rhythm to the way the Archers' plots develop – what matter if it's Tom's sausages, or Helen's cheese, the important things is that now and forever, 'The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea' while 'the ploughman homeward plods his weary way'.


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Actually, in terms of the Archers and narrative structure, Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard turns out to be prophetic – given that once herd and ploughman are gone, their absence 'leaves the world to darkness and to me'. Grey's soliloquiser anticipated the soap's next mutation, which was to exchange the thrust-and-parry of the dialogic in favour of the socially-isolated cast recording a series of solo speeches in the duvet-swaddled reclusion of their several and geographically separated airing cupboards. I tuned in eagerly the other day (something that I've never done before), in order to hear how this revolution in radio dramaturgy sounded; would there be a Beckettian feel to the enterprise, as the character' fluency broke down in the face of their isolation, and they began to doubt the very capacity of language itself to convey their emotions – so resorted to the disjointed syntax of an Estragon or a Krapp? I was looking forward to Brian Aldridge, crumbling a handful of dirt in his hand while intoning: 'Not, never nor never done this… life… land not done – not done nothing… all poison…' or some such.

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Alternatively, might the new format allow for genuinely Shakespearean soliloquizing? Might Freddie Pargeter stare deep into the eye sockets of a sheep skull and see there the void at the centre of all human being – and might he put this insight into poetry as euphonious as it is philosophically complex? Well, no. The Archers' scriptwriters seem to have eschewed older models of the solo vocative, in favour of giving their characters internal monologues that derive from contemporary media. They speak not as Ophelia does of her fraying sanity – but like people composing a text message aloud, or a Tweet. Not only do the internal monologues of the characters have little of the polyphonic oddity of any human consciousness, but they also cleave to the most basely quotidian aspects of their lives – the eggs and the sausages, the herd and the ploughman. In those blue-remembered days when the actors who play Linda Snell and Susan Carter were in the studio together, discussing matters of the utmost banality, it was possible to grant them rich inner lives to which we, the listeners, were denied access. But now we know the truth: inside the actor playing Linda Snell there's another Linda Snell, and inside that one a third – and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseum. I return, once more, to the subject of the Archers – that long-running radio soap opera about the everyday lives of rural folk that's a sort of synecdoche of our national life. Indeed, given Radio 4 is also a sort of synecdoche of our national life (if, that is, we're middle class), while the BBC can be considered in this light, too; I think it not altogether wrong to view the Archers as a mise en abyme, pointing the way – by reason of this infinite regress – towards the real terms of our existence. What is it that Pope writes in his Essay on Man? Ah yes: 'Who sees with equal eye, as God of all / A hero perish, or a sparrow fall / Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd / And now a bubble burst, and now a world.'

The world of the Archers burst along with everyone else's when the pandemic struck. Actors in general have had a dreadful time – but radio actors, for whom standing at microphones in a spray of saliva is de rigueur, anyway, have had it particularly hard. For a while the BBC tried the parallel world approach: continuing the action of the soap opera as if Covid-19 and the lockdown existed in an alternative universe; one which had, quite possibly, split off from our own at some arbitrary causal juncture – between, as it were, the lip and the cup. But of course this wasn't going to work for long. Attentive listeners doubtless began to wonder when the next fission would occur – would the Grundys ferment a batch of cider so strong it propelled all of Borsetshire into a Dionysian dithyramb? Or could Justin Elliott continue Borchester Land's ruthless expansion by annexing… Poland?

In order to forestall such a cosmic solecism, the BBC then took another tack, and began running old episodes of the soap. This recursive solution had some validity – not least because many Archers listeners are probably like me, and drop in and out of its aural swaddling with all the attentiveness of a child smoothing nap on a piece of velvet. But also because despite all its producers' and scriptwriters' attempts to be modish, there remains something quintessentially tweedy-textured and wet-dog-smelling about the programme. It also took me a while to realise they actually were running repeats, because there's a timeless, near-circadian rhythm to the way the Archers' plots develop – what matter if it's Tom's sausages, or Helen's cheese, the important things is that now and forever, 'The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea' while 'the ploughman homeward plods his weary way'.

Actually, in terms of the Archers and narrative structure, Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard turns out to be prophetic – given that once herd and ploughman are gone, their absence 'leaves the world to darkness and to me'. Grey's soliloquiser anticipated the soap's next mutation, which was to exchange the thrust-and-parry of the dialogic in favour of the socially-isolated cast recording a series of solo speeches in the duvet-swaddled reclusion of their several and geographically separated airing cupboards. I tuned in eagerly the other day (something that I've never done before), in order to hear how this revolution in radio dramaturgy sounded; would there be a Beckettian feel to the enterprise, as the character' fluency broke down in the face of their isolation, and they began to doubt the very capacity of language itself to convey their emotions – so resorted to the disjointed syntax of an Estragon or a Krapp? I was looking forward to Brian Aldridge, crumbling a handful of dirt in his hand while intoning: 'Not, never nor never done this… life… land not done – not done nothing… all poison…' or some such.

Alternatively, might the new format allow for genuinely Shakespearean soliloquizing? Might Freddie Pargeter stare deep into the eye sockets of a sheep skull and see there the void at the centre of all human being – and might he put this insight into poetry as euphonious as it is philosophically complex? Well, no. The Archers' scriptwriters seem to have eschewed older models of the solo vocative, in favour of giving their characters internal monologues that derive from contemporary media. They speak not as Ophelia does of her fraying sanity – but like people composing a text message aloud, or a Tweet. Not only do the internal monologues of the characters have little of the polyphonic oddity of any human consciousness, but they also cleave to the most basely quotidian aspects of their lives – the eggs and the sausages, the herd and the ploughman. In those blue-remembered days when the actors who play Linda Snell and Susan Carter were in the studio together, discussing matters of the utmost banality, it was possible to grant them rich inner lives to which we, the listeners, were denied access. But now we know the truth: inside the actor playing Linda Snell there's another Linda Snell, and inside that one a third – and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

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