‘Isn’t that charming!’ Carol declares at the height of the great Home Farm cocktail party, after being subjected to Jennifer’s somewhat over-enthusiastic description of her wine storage unit. Just three words but such a lot of meaning.
Carol Tregorran’s resurrection in Ambridge after decades of silence is a stroke of genius by The Archers team (led by Sean O’Connor), and almost, but not quite, makes up for the absurdity of the Elizabeth/Roy storyline, still not resolved and likely to linger on for weeks yet, Elizabeth struggling to put Roy back where he belongs, Roy transformed from a cheery family man into a lovelost shadow of his former self. Carol’s return, though, has restored something that’s been missing from the Borsetshire village for years. A sense of humour. That wicked turn of phrase. A willingness to poke fun, on air in the middle of a scene, at the whole conceit of Ambridge and its rural folk. She’s not afraid to show up the soap for what it is: a bit of escapist make-believe whose characters are two-dimensional storyboards on to which we pin our hopes, fears and dire thoughts.
‘It’s lucky Jenny watched that,’ says Carol, referring to the film Babette’s Feast and to Jenny’s ludicrously precious preparations for her party, ‘and not The Silence of the Lambs.’ We are, of course, all supposed to remember it was once rumoured that Jenny was having an affair with Carol’s now-dead husband, John. Did Carol know about the affair? Who cares. She just says what we all think and wish we had the nerve to say but never dare. No one else took on that role in Ambridge after Carol left the cast back in 1990, but I never really noticed it was missing until her return made it obvious.
As Carol chatted with Peggy and Jill over lunch earlier in the week at Grey Gables — where else? — I realised, too, what’s been happening to Jill in the past few years. Instead of being a bit of an outsider, with an irreverent take on all things Ambridge, she’s been diminished and turned into a rather frumpy hausfrau, bound up with family and the farm. When did we last hear her wicked giggle? When did she last make us laugh? Being with Carol has brought the real Jill back to life, thank heavens.
Carol is of course none other than Eleanor Bron. It’s a real coup for the soap, tempting such a star of stage and screen to join the cast. And, perhaps surprisingly, Bron has blended in immediately. Usually it takes weeks for a new voice to settle down, become part of the aural texture of Ambridge. (I’m still not sure that David Troughton as the new Tony has pulled it off; he always sounds a bit off-kilter.) Bron, though, sounded straight off as if she belonged with the others. Her timing, her phrasing, her intention is spot-on; her understanding of her relationships with the rest of the cast pitch perfect.
‘I love it when people shake things up a bit,’ says Carol about Susan Carter’s shocking new hairstyle. ‘It’s just what Ambridge needs more of, don’t you think?’
Sue MacGregor’s Radio 4 series The Reunion (produced by Emily Williams) is back for its summer season and on Sunday reminded us of the Berlin airlift, movingly commemorated each year in Germany but now almost forgotten over here. MacGregor’s guests included a pilot, an air-traffic controller and a flight engineer who all took part in the attempt to keep Berlin going in spite of the Soviet blockade, sealing off the three Allied sectors of the city (controlled by Britain, the US and France) from the western-controlled zones of Germany.
Berlin was 100 miles inside the Soviet zone. When Stalin finally shut down the borders on 24 June 1948, preventing all goods from coming in and out of the Allied sectors of Berlin, there was enough coal in the city for 45 days and food for just 36. An Allied operation was mounted immediately to bring in food using three air corridors across the western-occupied sectors of Germany to two airfields in Allied-controlled Berlin. But 3,000 tons of food a day was needed, as well as fuel and medicines. At one point planes were flying in one every minute, with planes just 250 feet apart. ‘It was very frightening on a clear night,’ said the pilot, Dick Arscott. But how much more scary on a bad night, when you couldn’t see? He lost a stone and a half in four weeks.
It was not just the danger of stacking the planes over the airport and waiting for them to land. The Russians were not averse to buzzing the Allied planes, flying as close as 20 feet, to discourage them. After a couple of days Dick got fed up with this and turned his plane towards the Russian plane.
‘You went straight at him?’ asked MacGregor.
‘You were close enough to see the whites of his eyes, I expect?’
‘I had my eyes closed,’ said Dick.