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The Archers in tomorrow's G2


A walk on the wild side

You may think of The Archers as a cosy take on rural life. But it's getting harder to ignore the crack addicts, infidelity and poverty, which makes Zoe Williams wonder: is the Radio 4 soap our most radical social drama? Illustrations by David Parkins

Adam and Ian are getting married in The Archers tonight. It is slightly thorny, what with Adam's stepfather, Brian, kvetching about turning up at all. Otherwise, though, the rest of the Archers — yea, all of Ambridge — is taking this turn of events rather well. Which is more than can be said of some outsiders. A gay wedding in middle England, they say. Surely that's against Radio 4 law?

Well, not exactly.

The "everyday story of country folk" holds a very specific place in the national psyche. Everybody knows that it was started as a didactic piece to educate people in the ways of farming. So, in the earliest days, a typical plot line might go: Jill: "Phil, can you help me out with our children, of whom I've had about 17?" Phil: "I'm afraid not, Jill, because if I don't oversee the planting of the squash today or tomorrow, we will miss our window and be totally out of squash. Also, I am a man. Can't Nanny help you? She is, after all, of the servant classes."

Most people with any familiarity with the show now know that it no longer has this teaching agenda . And yet, it is expected by people who do not listen to it that the show will still be a very close reflection of the core values of Radio 4.

Now, naturally, this assumes that the Radio 4 constituency is homogenous. Not only is it not that, but the division within its audience is almost comically binary and possessive. As Anthony Wall, who has made an episode of the arts programme Arena about The Archers, puts it, "There are two wings to Radio 4's audience — you notice it with Any Answers as well. Half the audience is literary, left/ liberal type; the other half is strongly conservative; and they both feel that it belongs to them. A tiny, silent, very British war is being fought through the aegis of its calming tones."

Being of the civilised classes himself, he would call it a "tiny, silent" war. The Daily Mail, conversely, recently called it "an everyday story of BBC propaganda". Allow me to quote Stephen Glover properly: "There is not yet a 'swingers' club, but it cannot be long before Sid Perks, the amiable landlord of The Bull, starts one with his voluptuous (third) wife, Jolene." Damn it all, I wish I could quote the whole piece.

Clearly, the flashpoints in the Archers are centred around modern morality. Take the Emma-Will-Ed love triangle, for example, in which a young woman sleeps with two brothers, gets pregnant, marries the steady one (Will) believing the other to be the father, then leaves Will for Ed after Ed threatens to go travelling. (The scripts for this were phenomenal. They were Wuthering Heightsesque. I bashed off my wing mirror in Herne Hill listening to this, back before my radio got nicked.) Ed, it turned out, wasn't the father — Will was. By the time it ran out of steam, this storyline had covered infidelity and marital breakdown, pushed its Cain and Abel resonances to their very depths, made Clarrie cry (I hate it when Clarrie cries), even introduced crack addiction to the quiet lanes of Borsetshire.

Mary Cutler, a scriptwriter of amazingly long standing and, I think, the voice behind all the best stuff, remarked: "I actually wrote the line, 'Ed's not been smoking weed — he's been smoking crack cocaine!' But then you read in the paper that Britain is the crack capital of Europe. It's perfectly accurate — it's not like we're being sensational." And besides all that, the story put paid to the tried and trusted paternity test of "whoever was the best lay, he's probably the father", so I really think this through line did its civic duty and beyond.

Then, of course, there is the gay wedding. Ian is a Northern Irish chap who is very charming and a peacemaker, but also a bit cracked. My favourite storyline with these two was when he wanted to make a baby with his equally cracked friend Madds, and Adam put his foot down. Then he lifted his foot up again. The friend was a flake anyway. Adam, by the way, is the most straight-acting gay man in the history of gayness. Sorry, I could go on forever.

Of course, the one unwavering truth of The Archers is that the only things that really scandalise the characters are pantomimes and the mistreatment of animals; everything else is greeted, at the very worst, with a gladness that is slightly muted (I am filing Emma leaving Will under "mistreatment of animals"). Patricia Greene, who plays Jill Archer and has been with the show for most of its 55 years, is rather doubtful about Ambridge's response to this wedding. "I have to say, I thought the wedding of the gays in a small village like Ambridge was perhaps a little . . . The fact that we didn't all open our mouths in astonishment . . . We just took it as you would in London! We all took it very calmly. But then, we're talking about something insubstantial. It's an imagined place, peopled by imagined characters who don't speak for themselves; they speak the lines that the writers have written. When I look back on my time here, I just think, 'You've lived the most insubstantial life.'

"Am I going to get the sack when you publish this?" she wonders. "If I get the sack, can I come and work at the Guardian?"

"Har har!" I say. "Course you won't get the sack." This is because I haven't yet spoken to her boss, Vanessa Whitburn.

The third major modern symphony is another love triangle, Ruth-David-Sam. Ruth and David Archer have had a rock-solid marriage for 18 years, of which Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth, says, "A lot of people feel that David and Ruth's is the relationship at the centre of the programme, a really believable partnership. Some people, of course, think it's too good to be true." Anyway, Sophie — who, between you and me, is a total bitch — went out with David in 1983, split up with him before Ruth came along and suddenly returned, wanting a discreet extra-marital affair, the very notion of which put David off his dinner, poor lamb (David, I mean, not the dinner), which, if my memory serves, had been cooked by gay Ian (chef at Restaurant Les Cheeky Affaires, et Autres Avances du Plot).

Haw-hee-haw, you are thinking: standard man-cheats-on-wife story. Not at all. Ruth, knowing nothing but suspecting much, confides in a herdsman, Sam, who takes this as an opportunity to declare his undying love. She wavers, but doesn't do him. Cold feet. The real story, now, is whether or not she and David can repair their marriage, since he, who is so repressed that he can't even eat after the words "How about it?" have been uttered, obviously has, like, issues.

Now, as I was reminded while I spoke to the scriptwriters, this may all sound a bit steamy for such traditional fare, but The Archers has never been traditional. In the very first episode, Peggy Archer (now Peggy Woolley) was thinking about whether or not to leave her husband, which was an unthinkably big deal in 1951. You do not get to be a social radical, or a moderniser, simply by raising issues of infidelity and homosexuality. However, I do think The Archers is socially radical — not because it is modern, but because it isn't. There are a few modern myths that all TV soaps unthinkingly uphold — that drama is escapist and that it "depresses" people when social and/or fiscal considerations intrude; and that issues of class, privilege and social exclusion are totally outdated, and do not interest anyone any more.

The Archers is, I think, profoundly leftwing, not in the sense that it is socially liberal, but in the way that all its emotional decisions are given their social and economic context, honestly, and without a facile, Dynasty-style, nobody-here-wants-to-talk-about-overdrafts sheen. When Emma left Will, she and Ed and the baby ended up living in a caravan, and it was miserable, and it was part of what destroyed their relationship, and there was a very real sense that they were all alone, unsupported, clinging on to solvency with their fingertips. Cast your mind over to love triangles involving EastEnders' Mitchell brothers, over the years — they occur, and there are plenty of fireworks, but whatever bills must be paid afterwards are emotional, never financial.

I put this idea to Whitburn, who has been editor of the programme for years. On The Archers message board, by the way, there is a parody of the village panto called Who's Afraid of Vanessa Whitburn? Well, me. I am. "It's like the programme that journalists will never let grow up," she says, tetchily. "If you look back, whenever we do a story, whether it's the gay wedding, or will Ruth sleep with Sam, some members of the press say, 'Gosh, how shocking.' "

"No," I tell her. "I don't mean that it's old-fashioned, I mean that it seems to operate outside the modern orthodoxy with how it interlaces private and public worlds."

"Well, that's just your view! You're just telling me your view! You just want me to agree with you!"

"I don't care whether you agree or not — I'm soliciting your opinion!"

"Well, that's just your view!"

Cutler, conversely, is very amenable to listening to people and not shouting at them. Wall, certainly, attributes to her a pioneering spirit: "I wouldn't call her a radical, but she certainly belongs to that hard, intellectual feminist generation." (I think he means "hard" as in "complex", not "tough and mean".)

She considers the social dimension of her scripts. "We've had these characters who've lived through our times, these things have happened to them, so they're absolutely not in some cosy bubble." Furthermore, she says, "It's one of the few soaps that's actually about work, so you couldn't keep it in a cosy countryside where they had plough-horses. You have to look at European directives and the terrible prices for sheep farmers and insecticide. So once you start looking at that, you have to look at everything else."

I think this is very pertinent. You notice that a lot of the tiny conflicts are about work: can you turn up on time; can you get that cow out of that ditch? When people mention that The Archers still has an agricultural consultant, it is apparently to highlight how quaint it is, but once you strive to tell the truth about work, you have already created a more authentic world than the broad slew of soaps, with their elliptical references to day jobs off stage, could even dream of.

When I first spoke to Cutler, she seemed to be expecting me to rip into her for not being feminist enough, though it has never occurred to me to look for a feminism-deficiency in The Archers. "What you forget is how backward 1979 [when she joined The Archers team] was. The Arena interviewer was sort of saying, 'Did you find it very hard?' And I was thinking, 'Oh dear, maybe I didn't do enough.' But in 1979, most of the women at the BBC were secretaries. We got this reputation for being wild, radical feminists, but to say anything apart from 'Would you like a cup of coffee?' was quite radical." An interesting aside on gender politics springs up when she is talking about Ian and Adam: "I wrote the gay kiss and, in a funny way, you can write better romances for gay characters now than you can for heterosexual ones. There are so many issues with heterosexuals, and there's such a danger of its sounding Mills & Boony. Whereas that was so charming, a kiss by moonlight. It's quite old-fashioned." She is so right — it was charming. It was actually a bit of a tear-jerker.

Another scriptwriter, Jo Toye, says: "I wouldn't say we don't do politics. Certainly, opinions are aired, usually over things such as Emma. Is she going to stay a single working mother? Is she going to get back with Will? Is there a future for her with Ed? I'm a single working mother myself. I've grown up with the programme. And this is also why Kathy and Kenton don't live together. I don't see why they should. We've got enough nuclear families in The Archers. We have to reflect what is out there in the world. But a lot of our debates are male/female rather than left/right. You would have to cast fairly deep to find a writer who was rightwing, but we're not all Marxists living in bedsits."

She then phones me back about 20 minutes later. "When I said I wasn't a Marxist . . . I would hate you to think I voted Tory."

I love the way this programme seems to mirror and chart the response of the BBC as a whole to accusations of political bias. And I think it is this rather discrete political awareness that gives it enough texture for someone to be able to make an Arena about it. It is not just because it has been going the most phenomenally long time. And Wall is keen to stress that overintellectualising soap operas is a bit of a swizz. "There's been an enormous amount of nonsense spoken about EastEnders," he says. "If Shakespeare was alive today, he would be writing King Lear, he would not be writing EastEnders. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point of both."

In the early days, according to Greene, "Before I joined, everybody wanted us to open fetes and things. Several cast members went and opened Tory fetes because they paid so well. And then a note came round: 'No. More. Political. Fetes.'" Now, the fear seems to be that people will think it all too leftwing, though, naturally, nobody wants to seem rightwing either. They are aiming loosely for an aspect of total political neutrality, while at the same time being the only soap, certainly, left in Britain that has anything more than a child's engagement with the world. It is an interesting conundrum. Though not as interesting, of course, as who shags who. Or doesn't. Or does, and then gets married over it •

The Archers is on Radio 4 at 7pm tonight; Arena is on BBC4 on January 1. Nancy Banks-Smith's column, A Month in Ambridge, appears in tomorrow's G2.

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