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Radio review: The Archers — Soapland’s response to our post-9/11 world

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

He’s gone. Not that anyone apart from Lilian will miss him. But Paul’s been despatched (at long last) to the Land of Discarded Soap Actors, despised, rejected and scorned by most of those who knew him in Borsetshire — and also, I hope, by any self-respecting Archers Addict.

I felt nothing, absolutely nothing, at the news of his heart attack in a hotel room in Cardiff, except perhaps relief that we will never again have to listen to his wheedling, self-satisfied tones. How could smart, zappy Lilian ever have fallen for his oleaginous charms? It was clear from his very first words that he was as badly behaved as his half-brother Matt Crawford, but without Matt’s speck of decency that keeps him true to Lilian. Matt’s a baddie, but at least he has heart enough to love Lilian (although we still don’t know quite what role he had to play in Paul’s death; perhaps we’ll have to revise our opinion of him as well in the not-too-distant).

Paul has (or rather had) no redeeming features. He was just rotten all the way through, and we knew it. But, mysteriously, Lilian never saw through him, allowing the ghastly Paul to turn her into a weak and winsome female (no longer a woman), ever willing to drop everything to rush over to their squalid flat in Felpersham and fall into his arms for another bout of squishy sex. No longer Tiger; not even Pussy-cat. A pale shadow of her former self. And for what? Champagne and kisses?

But of course we’re in Soapland here, where characters switch character at the whim of a desperate scriptwriting committee. They needed an affair to spice up Ambridge life. The actress who plays Lilian (Sunny Ormonde) was available for extra duties. Why not give her a lover? And better still. Why not add a fratricidal element? Hey presto. Matt’s half-brother, Paul (or rather Michael Fenton Stevens), whom we first met years ago when Matt was in prison, wakes up to find that his contract has been renewed, indefinitely.

Of course, it is all just make-believe. Why be bothered that the characters are like a series of cardboard cut-outs, dressed up in new emotional outfits from week to week? What does it matter if there’s too much roadkill per episode to bear any relation to real life? But Lilian’s affair (how can we ever trust her again?) was plotted during the reign over The Archers of the EastEnders producer, John Yorke, when the everyday story of country folk was turned into ‘something much darker’ (Yorke’s own words).

Actually what was shocking about Paul’s death was not that it was unexpected. It’s been coming to him for weeks. But that it provoked no reaction (not, at least, from me). No shock, no cathartic release of emotion; not even when Lilian fell into Jolene’s arms at the Bull and began wailing. No. We’ve had so much high-tension drama in Ambridge in the past couple of years we just don’t care when something dreadful happens. Who, now, would be so heart-struck by Lilian’s outpouring of grief they would have to stop driving and pull off the road because they couldn’t see through their tears?

And this is what’s so insidious about 21st-century Soapland. What was once ‘sentimental’ entertainment (with a shot of useful information added in), designed deliberately to soft-soap our fears and worries, has been turned into something very different. It’s as if we’ve now become so inured to nastiness, greed and misfortune that we need ever-increasing doses of rotten behaviour to feed our insatiable desire to be shocked, appalled, outraged. You might say that the Greeks got there first, but at least there was always some explanation, a rationale, for the murder and misfortune in Agamemnon’s palace: warring gods and fickle fortune. Now it seems our Soapland friends are good, or bad, just for the hell of it, and because they’re worth it.

Our chaotic world has become ever more confusing. No one stays the same. No one is safe. Everything is possible, both good and bad. You might wonder whether this is Soapland’s response to our post-9/11 world. Just as the News is now designed to terrify and appal us, rather than to inform (so that even the stalwart Duke of Edinburgh is not safe from presages of doom, and endless intrusive analysis, as he enters hospital), so even the safe and comforting world of Ambridge has been taken over by intimidation, gory dogfights, hit-and-run drivers, armed sheep rustlers.

In the past Lilian would never have fallen for someone like Paul. She would have had an affair, but not with someone so cheap. The affair, too, would have ended after they were discovered in flagrante by Eddie Grundy. Cue: a bit of a laugh, a few tears. Now we have suspicions about suicide, murder, while Lilian shrivels in front of our ears.

We can of course never go back. This is the future. No point in turning to Soapland for entertainment, or solace. It’s only a matter of days before another apple will turn rotten in Ambridge.

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