First a confession: I am a casual Radio 4 listener. That is not to say that I lounge around on bean bags in a silk smoking jacket whilst Sandi Toksvig introduces Excess Baggage. Rather, I tune in on a semi-regular basis and catch whatever happens to be on at the time. Since this tends to happen on a Thursday evening as I toil southwards down the M11, I often end up catching the end of the 6:30 comedy show, the entirety of Front Row with wet-lipped arts correspondent Mark Lawson, and of course, The Archers. And herein lies our subject for today.
Imagine that Eastenders or Coronation Street is on the telly. Now imagine closing your eyes and listening to it for however long it lasts. No peeking – just listen. Can you tell what’s going on? Do you know who’s who? Now let’s take things one step further, and imagine that you only listen to one episode in seven. Would the story not be a little difficult to follow?
Well of course it would, you say. What kind of fool deliberately hampers their enjoyment of gritty Cockney/Manc urban drama by subtracting the pictures and missing out six sevenths of the episodes? Such a reckless fool could not possibly hope to comprehend a whit of the storyline, nor identify the score or so characters featured from their voice alone.
And yet that is exactly my experience of The Archers. I listen to it once a week in my car for twelve and a half minutes, trying to remember who’s who and trying to work out what on earth’s going on. Matt’s out of prison? Sid’s dead? Pip’s broken up with her useless boyfriend? When did that happen? It’s a nightmare for the causal listener such as myself, and in my opinion is a real stumbling block to attracting a greater audience. Where’s the user friendliness here? If The Archers were a home computer it would doubtless be a PC, not a Mac. What’s needed is a radical rethink of the entire show, if its listener-base is ever to grow.
Fortunately I’m on hand to propose a threefold solution which will propel The Archers into the twenty-first century - the right Archers for the right future, to paraphrase Dr Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil:
1) Previously on…
The first thirty seconds of every episode will start with a recap of recent events, much in the style of Lost or Battlestar Galactica. This will bring casual audience members instantly up to date and astute listeners will be able to deduce which characters and storylines are likely to feature in the following twelve minutes, thus preparing them mentally and emotionally. Obviously the ‘Previously on…’ voiceover would have to be appropriate to and respectful of the rural setting, so I propose Justin Lee Collins.
2) Trim the fatMore importantly, the sheer number of characters needs to be reduced, mainly because I just can’t figure out who’s who. All we have to go on are their voices, and frankly too many of them sound the same. Now, without recourse to Wikipedia, I will genuinely attempt to list all the current characters, to give you some illustration of the problem:
Middle Aged Man – he might be called Brian. There are several Brians, some of whom are called David or Kenton. He is a sort of farmer or business man. He often talks about poly-tunnels.
Middle Aged Woman – a wife of generic accent. She may be called Shula. There are older versions of her too.
Geordie Mum – she is called Ruth and sounds perpetually piggin’ miserable.
Bumpkin Bloke – Eddie Grundy. He has younger backups of himself called Edward, Ed, Tedwin and Nedbert. He has a foin rustic aczent.
Bumpkin Bird – she is called Clarrie. She runs some sort of farming affair with the help of a clone Bumpkin Bird whose name escapes me. Let’s call her Fanny.
Bumpkin Grandpa – Old Joe Grundy and some other straw-chewer with a jowly old voice that sounds like he gargles in cider after every meal.
Absurdly Posh Woman – Mrs Snell? Mrs Mangel? Margo Ledbetter? Ridiculously plummy-voiced caricature left over from the cast of Duty Free.
Wheeler-Dealer – he is called Matt. His character and voice were stolen from Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin, and he refuses to give them back.
A girl - her name is Pip and/or Fizz. This is not helpful.
That’s it as far as I can tell. There may be variants and sub-classifications, but those of you with a better knowledge of the cast than I will probably be able to populate several of the above categories with more than one character. This is not good news for the casual listener. And yes, I am aware that occasionally Scotch or Oirish characters do crop up, but the vast majority of the cast fall into one of the over-populated English-accented vocal groupings of posh/normal/bumpkin, and thus confusion reigns supreme, much as the simian will one day reign over man, those damned dirty apes. Ahem.
So, a cull is required, one that will reduce the cast surplus such that there will remain only one character per voice, thus eliminating listener recognition difficulty at a stroke. I propose to implement this reduction via a new storyline introducing the development of the Borchester nuclear waste reprocessing plant. Wheeler-Dealer and a Brian will invest heavily in the project of course, and various Bumpkins and Girls will find employment there, in close proximity to highly unstable fissile materials. Listener interest will be piqued over a period of about a month, with hints of corner cutting and insufficient shielding. Disgruntled employees will mutter darkly into their beers in the snug of The Bull, and an Absurdly Posh Woman will start a leaflet campaign to Keep Ambridge Unatomic.
Events will come to a head with a much heralded double-length Friday night episode, wherein the oafish Bumpkin Bloke disastrously hooks up his overflowing silage truck to the coolant intake valve of the nuclear waste reprocessing plant, resulting in a catastrophic meltdown event that engulfs Ambridge in a low-yield atomic discharge. Cue the theme tune, abruptly drowned out by static and the sound of combusting cows.
This is known in the media as an Emmerdale Solution, so-called for the apocalyptic ‘plane crash’ storyline in 1993 which killed off four of the main characters as well as numerous sheep. They actually show you the sheep burning. Now that’s what I call a teatime drama.
Needless to say the Ambridge Nuclear Event storyline will be extensively teased and trailed in the weeks leading up to the big bang itself, culminating in a striking Radio Times cover depicting an ominous mushroom-shaped formation over Brookfield Farm. Listening figures cannot fail to rise. Who will live? Who will die? Who will be reduced to a blackened soot outline on the front door of the eternally-doomed post office? Only one thing will be certain – when the spluttering, charred, moderately irradiated survivors crawl free of the ruins of Ambridge’s rural idyll, there will only be one Middle Aged Man called Brian. And with a cast reduced to a manageable and vocally distinct line-up, listener recognition will be assured.
3) The FalloutNaturally, the Ambridge Nuclear Event will attract a massive audience, but the revamp doesn’t end there, oh no indeed. Having pared the cast down to one Bumpkin Bird, one Middle Aged Woman and so forth, we can proceed to introduce new characters with their own unique sounds, and how better to seamlessly slip them in than by developing a ‘fallout’ storyline, wherein the mutagenic effects of the widespread atomic waste begin to manifest themselves?
We begin slowly enough by altering the background sound effects of some of the livestock, gradually replacing ‘Standard Sheep Sounds 1- 5’ with digitally enhanced baaing. Alert listeners will start to notice patterns of phonemes and primitive word groups emerging from the new-born lambs at Home Farm, leading up to the shocking episode when the Geordie Mum hears a peculiarly tremulous version of O Little Town Of Bethlehem being sung on Christmas Eve, and opens her front door only to be confronted by a small choir of mutated man-lambs rearing up on their hind legs. In time, one of the flock, named Ewan, will take his place in the cast as the spokes-ovine of the newly formed Ambridge Woolpersons Collective, and will begin a troubled romance with the Girl.
Parallel plotline will be developed with pigs, cattle and maybe horses, introducing several new hooved characters into the mix, including Graham, 'a charming young boar with a head for agribusiness', and the Pettifers, 'a husband and wife pair of Herefords who just can’t seem to agree on anything'.
Finally, in a bizarre genetic twist of the airwaves, we reveal that the human population of Ambridge has itself been affected by the fallout, resulting in a number of incredible physical transmogrifications. At first, Eddie puts Clarrie’s new grass-chewing habit down to nerves over the fate of their new cheese-making enterprise. But when a routine check-up at the doctors reveals that she has grown three extra stomachs and has begun emitting methane at a prodigious rate, he can no longer put it down to in-breeding, and must come to terms with the fact that his wife has become a cow-woman. This leads to a number of heartbreaking scenes for the Grundys, as this sample dialogue shows:
Eddie: Clarrie? Where are you love? It’s getting dark.
SOUND EFFECT: DISTANT COW-BELL
Eddie: Oh c’mon, love, you’ll be cold out here in the field all noight.
Nedbert: Is that ‘er over there, Dad?
Clarrie: Oh Eddie, Oi don’t want you seeing me loik this. Moo.
Eddie: Now don’t you worry about that, moi love. Us Grundys have got to stick together, ain’t we?
Clarrie: But Eddie, look at me, Oi’m a big ol’cow.
Nedbert (whispering): She’s roight Dad, she is a bloody cow. Look at the size of them udders.
Eddie (whispering): Don’t you go talking about your mother loik that.
Eddie: C’mon Clarrie love, we’ve been through worse than this. Remember when Oi was done for selling condemned meat or when Joe clubbed his ferrets to death? Just coz you’ve developed a loiking for chewing the cud’s no need to go getting all dramatical on us. You’re still moi wife, Clarrie Grundy.
Clarrie: Oh Joe! Moo.
Eddie: Oh Clarrie!
Nedbert: Shouldn’t we be getting her off to the milking shed, Dad?
Now that’s the sort of quality real-life drama the entire nation will be tuning into (on digital, online and on 92 – 95 FM).
I will also be getting rid of the stupid French accordion version of the theme tune from the Sunday omnibus.