OK, Archers fans out there. All five million of you. Ask yourselves a straightforward question. Why on earth do you — do we — listen to this show full of completely awful people? Why do we subject ourselves to this 13 minutes of daily torment, not to mention the Sunday omnibus, wallowing in the lives of fictitious characters who, let’s be ruthlessly honest, are almost universally loathsome?
Don’t get me wrong. I love The Archers. I have lain in bed sweating with a fever in Mogadishu, glued to the comings and goings in Ambridge. In 2005, as al Qaeda’s bearded bombers did their worst in Baghdad, I hunkered down in my trailer hooked on Ed and Will’s fight over Emma. Working in Tripoli and Tunis the past few months, I’ve tuned in every evening to hear how sappy Helen is getting on with oh-so-nice martial arts man Lee.
The other day, I asked my wife why we listened to this rubbish so assiduously. Did we actually like a single character in the show?
Where to begin? We could do worse than the oldies. (In fact, we will.) Let’s start with the matriarchs. Take your pick from Peggy and Jill. Which is which? ‘You can’t say anything nasty about Peggy,’ says my wife. ‘She’s the moral compass of the programme.’ Then she adds, in what I instantly recognise as classic Archers oneupmanship, ‘But then you don’t remember Jack.’ And Jill, Brookfield’s moralising mother hen? The endless clucking drives me potty.
What about Will and Ed? As with Peggy and Jill, which is which, and do we care? Who in their right mind would come to blows over a woman as charmless as Emma Grundy?
Don’t get me started on the Grundys. I just can’t buy into the father-and-son, Joe-and-Eddie shtick. Is this 2019 or 1940? And Clarrie? ‘Even when times are hard for Clarrie, she can be relied on to bake a cake, sew a panto costume or help out at the W.I.,’ the Archers website tells us. I rest my case.
Susan? Jesus Christ. Is she not the most appalling person ever released onto British airwaves? You have to sympathise with her pig-man husband Neil, don’t you? No, not really. His long-suffering worthiness makes me want to jump off a bridge.
And Brian Aldridge, that monumentally entitled monster. Who the hell does he think he is? What he has put his family through (even though I can’t stomach his wife, the stand-by-her-man Jennifer). The greed. The lies. The lack of remorse. If there is justice in the world, he is going down. Bigtime.
Justin? Pompous and grotesque. The unacceptable face of capitalism in Brexit Britain. Kenton? Give me strength. ‘What’s he for?’ my wife asks. Personally, I used to like him, but unlike the genuine national treasure that is the golfer Ian Poulter, aka the Postman, he just never delivers. And Jolene? The best thing about her is her name. Jazzer? Shouldn’t this sort of lazy stereotyping of the Scottish pisshead be a thing of the past?
What about the new generation — are they any better? You’ve got to be kidding. That little drug-dealing twerp Freddie? Please someone throw away the key. But then look at the mother. The wailing and gnashing Elizabeth, who gives mental health issues a bad name. Nigel, mate: you did well to fall off that roof. You’re well out of it.
Ruth Archer, who calls her husband Dearvid? What is she on about? And Dearvid himself. Next time you listen to him, wait for the gasps, the sighs, the little sound effects that flesh out his skills as a thespian. Their daughter Pip? Mob grazzzzzing? Puhleez.
Then there’s feckless Toby and his flavoured gins and his inability to stick to anything. Enough already. Usha and Shula? Don’t tell me I’m the only one in Britain who muddles them up. Linda? Ambridge’s answer to Hyacinth Bucket. Beyond the pale.
But wait. Surely it can’t all be bad. Don’t we like Tony, I ask my wife in despair. ‘Spineless,’ she shoots back. ‘Complete wimp.’
In the end, it all comes down to the splendid Lilian, a flawed but engaging character for whom no problem is so big that it can’t be solved with a monster gin and tonic. Lilian, darling, well done for eventually seeing through oikish Matt and dumping him. You — and you alone — are my heroine.
And yet for all this character horror show, the programme somehow rises above this quagmire of rural banality. If ever something was greater than the sum of its parts, it is The Archers, at once mundane and magnificent. There. I feel better now. Bring on 7:03 p.m.
Now listen to Nicola Headlam, author and Archers superfan, on what’s there to love about the Archers (33:00):
Justin Marozzi discusses The Archers on this week’s podcast.