Why tuning in to The Archers has me all aquiver
Since coming out as a fan of Radio 4's The Archers, a hitherto hidden world has opened up to me. The most unexpected people have reached out and offered me a quiet nudge, a coy smile, a secret handshake. Just this week one of my most sophisticated friends emailed to chastise me for failing to premise a tweet about an Archers' story twist with a Spoiler Alert. I was posting midweek, you see, and she was a Sunday omnibus kinda gal.
We have regularly raved together about True Detective, Breaking Bad, The Wire – the crime de la crime of cult TV. Neither of us have ever hinted that we were also concerned about Jill Archer's cataract operation. But I shouldn't have been surprised; my friend is just the latest in a long line of urbane and yes, very cool (mostly female) acquaintances who have lately revealed their Archers' allegiance. It's a bit like finding out your dull, brown, cardiganny husband is actually a latter day Kim Philby. Though perhaps the other way round might be a better comparison.
Mind you, much as you might expect the side of a person which responds to The Archers to be fluffy and conservative, there is a touch of Rosemary's Baby/Wickerman 'secret community' vibe to the Archerettes (my own plural; it makes us sound like a delectable Phil Spector girl group).
Just as the birdsong-soundtracked show itself likes to undermine its cosy pub lunches and church fete hijinks with the odd hand up a cow's bum or loud Glaswegian 'Better oot than in!' after a gleefully unsuppressed fart, Archers' fans can turn very nasty when beloved aspects of the show are under threat. The producer who commissioned a re-recording of the theme tune in 1992 is still living under MI6's witness protection scheme.
Radio 4 listeners are notorious for the ferociousness with which they guard their favourite programmes. It's to do with the magical marriage of the station's routine, its consistent delivery of products both edifying and evocative, and the nature of speech radio; its pull on the imagination, its loneliness-defying friendliness.
It's easy to become reliant on Radio 4 to fill gaps not only in education, but in emotional fulfilment and social contact. When a new senior producer bashes in to kill off a popular drama character or dump the show that has accompanied dinner-prep since you were mashing banana for your first baby, it feels like someone has broken into your house and stolen old photographs. It feels like you're falling off something.
Of all the Radio 4 guerrillas, Archers followers are the most vehement. No surprise; the soap has been following generations of the same families for 64 years. Most ardent fans are women, and, much as there are some silly, implausible story lines and brain-drainingly dull characters (you know who you are, Tom), the serial serves them rather well.
The sad slow death of Peggy Archer's husband Jack, a previously buoyant and big plan kind of man who ended his days in a carehome-hosted somnambulant haze, was subtlely and softly written, and surprisingly moving. Current plots dealing with a middle-aged miscarriage and what looks like it will play out as the study of an intelligent but emotionally adrift woman falling into a relationship with an abusive man have been equally patient and sensitive.
These are women-friendly angles on people-centred stories, and invite us in to intimate recesses that our own relations might push us away from. So there should be no shame in being an Archerette; the truth is girls, this is how we roll.