It’s no good. We’ve been putting up with weird character changes, laughably unconvincing plotlines, calculating theatricals for a while now. But life in Ambridge has now plunged into the danger zone. If we don’t rise up in protest, The Archers is doomed, destined for broadcasting oblivion, killed off by a flash flood of OTT dramatics.
There were warning signs as soon as Ambridge Extra was launched on Radio 4 Extra with a mission to update life in the Borsetshire village, make it more appealing to younger listeners, provide a hinterland for all those minor characters whose names we knew but from whom we never heard — Freda, Ryan, Sabrina. Things in Ambridge changed, just ever so slightly. Alice turned into a careless flirt; beer in the Bull was abandoned in favour of cocktails at Jaxx; new Horrobins emerged from nowhere as if the family from hell was a 21st-century Hydra whose heads kept increasing without number.
But then John Yorke arrived from EastEnders to take over the editor’s role and sharpen up the action. Within days, Tony had a heart attack, Adam was almost bludgeoned to death by sheep-rustlers but made a miraculous recovery and is now having it off with one of the fruit-pickers from Poland, Brookfield was set alight by a blackmailing arsonist, and Vicky, yes Vicky, that chubby brunette from Borchester who carried Mike off to the altar and must be well over 50, announced that she’s pregnant. No wonder poor Mike is off his milk.
Mr Yorke, you just don’t get it. You’re supposed to give us subtle signs of a major plot development weeks in advance so we can guess what’s about to happen, giving ourselves the sensation that we’re in control and that nothing happens without us being able to predict it. Life in Borsetshire is not meant to be like the Olympic Village, with a drama every 15 minutes. Because The Archers is with us day in, day out, year in, year out, we need it to stay much the same. If the Olympics happened every day, or even every year, nothing would get done and we’d all be sick of success. It’s tuning in to characters going about their daily unrewarded duties that we want because it makes us realise that nothing much happens to anyone else either. Give us too much heightened living as part of our daily listen and we become anxious, nervous, always worried that we’re failing because our own everyday lives are so dull.
If we want to save the soap from destruction, we should organise a mass switch off, and stop downloading, podcasting, tuning in online. No more Ambridge over Sunday brunch. No more cooking dinner along to mooing cows and Eddie’s moneymaking schemes. We’ve got to stop Yorke before it’s too late. Save our Ambridge.
On The Forum on Saturday (Radio 4), we heard about a new branch of medicine called ‘Narrative Medicine’, which is designed to help doctors improve the way they deal with patients, especially very sick patients, by asking them to look at the patient’s life story, not just the illness. Patricia Chen, a cancer surgeon in the USA, was talking to the poet Paul Muldoon, the writer Diana Athill and broadcaster Bridget Kendall about death and our changing attitudes to it. As Chen said, most medical students arrive at college never having seen a dead body, yet as doctors in training they’ll be seeing on average 28 cadavers a year. How do they deal with this sudden exposure to the Endgame?
Athill, who once she got to 90-plus voluntarily put herself in a home for the elderly yet is now more in demand than ever as a public speaker, believes that we should all be thinking about death on a regular basis, no matter what age we are. Not deeply, she says, just regularly, so that we can familiarise ourselves with the idea that our story will have an ending. She’s an admirable ambassador for the elderly because she’s not in the least bit frightened by the idea that she’s closer to death than ever.
Muldoon’s sister died young but before she got too ill she bought her own grave. She then realised it wasn’t the ‘right’ grave; it wasn’t big enough. So she went out and bought another, bigger one. She wanted to be sure that her finale was as much part of her life as the living had been. ‘There’s an arc to our stories,’ says Muldoon, ‘and we need to think a little more about all of it, the beginning, the middle and the end.’
The Forum (produced by Emily Kasriel) has arrived on 4 from the World Service where it’s been bringing together an unusual mix of people to discuss the big questions of life. Athill, Chen and Muldoon, guided sensitively by Kendall, were so frank and open-minded they sounded as if they were just having a friendly chat over coffee. They were talking about death but what we were left with were thoughts on how to make sense of being alive.