Will and Nic’s canoodling in the woods. Adam’s bashed-in head. Amy’s makeover from wholesome midwife to foul-mouthed stepdaughter. Ambridge, home to the Archers, the Grundys and of course Lynda Snell, has been transformed from a sleepy village in the heart of Middle England into a crime-ridden soap, fuelled not by the everyday happenings of ordinary folk but the high-octane antics of a new crew of emotion-hugging soap stars. Joe and Eddie Grundy have all but disappeared from the scene, as have Peggy, Jill and Clarrie. Now we know why. There’s been a TV takeover and the daily soap is now under the editorial control of John Yorke, who used to work on EastEnders. For him, every episode has to end on a cliffhanger. Audience interest has to be maintained by a constant injection of drama. Characters have to be put ‘in jeopardy’ to make us ‘love them more’. Be warned. It’s all going to get much ‘darker’ down in Borsetshire.
Meanwhile, back in the 1990s, when John Butt co-created an Afghan soap opera for the BBC’s Pashtun radio service, he modelled it closely on The Archers. Ambridge was brought to Kandahar, Jalalabad and the Swat valley. Short 15-minute episodes threaded the problems of everyday folk struggling to survive in the devastated, war-torn country with carefully managed plotlines about health issues, women’s rights, best farming practice. Instead of milk yields, recipes for eggless cakes and Joe Grundy’s bronchitis, the characters in New Home, New Life were advised to fill in the craters left by Scud missiles before they became breeding grounds for mosquitoes. How to avoid stepping on landmines was its most useful storyline. The soap was a huge success, listened to by more than 80 per cent of Afghans and Pakistanis living in the forbidding mountainous lands of the North-West Frontier provinces. When the Taliban came to power and wanted to ban radios, along with stereo cassettes and TVs, they dared not do it. Too many of their supporters listened to the soap.
Now Butt has set up his own radio company, PACT Radio, with its own soap, Da Pulay Poray (or in English Across the Border). Its mission is not so much education as conflict resolution. The station reports on what’s happening not through the voices of politicians and militant leaders but in the stories of ordinary farmers, wives, daughters and market sellers. Da Pulay Poray uses their experiences as plot material, creating storylines about giving more rights to women and better conditions for poor farmers, or adapting the all-powerful tribal codes of honour. Next week an English version of the soap, An Everyday Story of Afghan Folk, can be heard on Radio 4, every day at 10.45 a.m. (repeated at 7.45 p.m.). The list of characters will be familiar to anyone who follows the antics of the Archers of Ambridge: rich, greedy farmers versus poor, oppressed tenants, young lovers against their parents, quarrelling women and feckless sons. The sense of Borsetshire being isolated, cut off, detached from anywhere else is convincingly repeated. Thereafter the connection between the two soaps ends. Life is harsher, bloodier, more violent in Pashtun country. Mewa Gul and his wife Bakhtawara (played by Meera Syal) sleep with their goats and cow. There’s not enough money for sugar. If you want another cup of tea, you must first collect water from the well. When darkness falls it is pitch black. The silence goes deep, broken only by an owl hooting, the barking of a rabid dog.
The writer and director Liz Rigbey (who used to write for The Archers) says that it was difficult to find ways of bringing the male and female communities together in the Muslim setting. There’s no pub and although there’s a shop women are not allowed to go there. Women meet at the well, but no man would demean himself to carry water. ‘The moral code changes the rules for the writer.’
The storyline for the week follows the arrival of a gun-toting outlaw from one of the tribal villages. He’s just killed two men. Pashtun custom dictates that he should be allowed to stay and take refuge. But what if he brings trouble with him? Beat that, John Yorke, for a dramatic dénouement.
Over on Radio 3 on Saturday night, Between the Ears brought us a startlingly fresh sound in the beautifully made In Search of the Balinese Scarecrow (produced by Sara Jane Hall). ‘Nature plays music; music plays nature,’ says the narrator as the sound of chiming bells and the rhythmic pulse of the gamelan segues into frogs croaking, birds twittering and the rain beating on a corrugated-iron roof. The music of Bali developed around the sounds heard when farming; from the arms of the scarecrow flapping in the wind and rattling the tin cans pinned on to its sleeves to scare off the birds and protect the rice in the paddy fields. It was the pauses, the silences in-between, that gave this programme its class, allowing us time to take in these strange, sometimes otherworldly sounds. A perfect antidote to the damp and chilly night.