What took them so long? For weeks and weeks he’d been limping into the farmhouse whining about how cold he is, how tired, how he’s had enough of Tom gadding about Borsetshire selling his gruesome-sounding pork meatballs while he’s stuck on the farm trimming leeks and getting up at the crack of dawn to do the milking. The clues were so obvious even Sergeant Lewis would have guessed that something bad must be waiting in the cowshed for Tony Archer.
Perhaps it was intentional, the scriptwriters of The Archers (Radio 4) calling our bluff to prove that they’re in charge, and carefully manipulating our fears and premonitions to ensure that we keep on tuning in day-by-day. You might think you’ve second-guessed what’s in the script for Tony. But we know best. His fate is actually under our control. You’re just our puppet listeners. So we stopped worrying about Tony. The story moved on. He got through his birthday, the family rallied round, the quarrels about the Brookfield herd and the Home Farm superdairy took over.
I missed a few episodes, as you do, and tuned back in to hear Jennifer (Tony’s sister, for the uninitiated) almost in tears after a sleepless night. ‘I’m so worried about him,’ she tells her husband Brian over breakfast. Who? For an awful moment, I thought it must be their son Adam who was in some kind of danger. That would have been the most brilliant bluff, hiding the real victim behind a duplicate storyline of father–son antagonisms. But of course it was Tony, who the evening before had collapsed in the milking parlour and been rushed off to hospital with a suspected heart attack.
Ambridge is beginning to resemble Holby City. More ambulance call-outs in a year than all the other villages in Borsetshire put together. Colin Skipp, who’s been playing Tony for 45 years, did a brilliant job, puffing and wheezing and sounding so weak and helpless and frightened, even after he got home from hospital a few days later. As Skipp says, it’s actually much easier to play out these dramatic highs. They make up for all those months when the only lines uttered by Skipp (aka Tony) are ‘Can I have some more toast, Pat?’ or ‘Brrrrr, it’s cold out there.’
The cast of The Archers are the real Oscar-winners for making those boring, bland, mundane conversations sound like real life and not play-acting. We can’t see them. We can tell nothing about them from analysing the expressions on their faces. We can’t watch how they’re interacting. We have to guess it all from their tone of voice as they give us a line about yogurt or the number of veg boxes waiting to be filled.
Their success at replicating ‘everyday life’ is the reason for the soap’s longevity, drawing in new listeners, who in turn become so convinced that Ambridge really exists that they start taking on the scriptwriters at their own game, teasing out what’s in store for the various characters. But all this ‘reality’ will go if the daily episodes are filled with too many events, too much adrenaline-boosting drama. It’s 15 minutes of the bare necessities of life we secretly crave, not the whirlpool of fickle fortune.
Blink and you might have missed it. But last weekend Radio 3 was celebrating Music Nation, the official beginning to the arts version of London 2012, with an extraordinary series of ‘live’ music broadcasts. Somewhere amid all the distracting chatter of listener participation was buried the astonishing fact that free on air was the opportunity to hear live music from venues as different as The Exchange in Sturminster Newton, the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow and the Roundhouse in London, and as far apart geographically as Unst in the Shetland Isles and Land’s End.
The project was not just about Radio 3. A lot of the concerts were free to attend as well as free to listen to. The performers were not just professionals, bussed and flown in for the occasion. Local groups such as Carrick Winds, the Choir with No Name, the Cobweb Orchestra were involved. A Shetland musician, Chris Stout, was invited to compose a ‘traditional’ lament for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to perform in four venues in the islands, from the most northerly hotel in the British Isles on the island of Unst to the smallest venue on Foula, with a maximum audience of 29.
The event was exactly what the founders of the Third Programme had envisioned back in 1946. Access to music, enthusiasm for music and a blend of ‘high art’ and the traditional. Back then there was not enough money for the arts, nor the technology available to do so many outside broadcasts in such a short time. Now it’s possible to veer from Dvorak and Chopin in the Victoria Hall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to Heiner Goebbels at the Southbank Centre in the space of a few hours, and without leaving the house.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012