Loved and hated in equal measure, its very presence is reassuring and comforting in difficult times
On New Year’s Day, BBC Radio 4’s serial drama The Archers turned 70 with a satisfying plot twist. Long-suffering, virtuous Kirsty Miller was arrested for modern slavery crimes committed not by her, but by her new husband, the unscrupulous, controlling builder Philip Moss. The storyline is an example of what the soap opera, the longest-running in the world, is particularly adept at achieving: throwing light on a pressing social issue of the day by playing out its consequences in real time. Indeed, time itself is perhaps the most crucial ingredient of The Archers, as its listeners eavesdrop, for 12 minutes a day, on the comings and goings, the heartbreaks and scandals, the tragedies and comedies, of a fictional village called Ambridge.
The writer on social history David Kynaston, in a Radio 4 documentary marking the drama’s milestone, elegantly charted how the programme has tracked social change in rural England. Even the 1960s happened, up to a point, in Ambridge, courtesy of the scandal of Jennifer Archer’s illegitimate baby in 1967. That illegitimate baby is Adam, now a married, gay farmer and the father, via a surrogate, of a toddler – a family arrangement unthinkable when he was born. Kynaston also noted that The Archers has a history of strong, competent women: Peggy Archer, played since 1951 by 101-year-old June Spencer, defied convention and took control of the village pub in the 1950s when her husband was too drunk and incompetent to do it himself. Even Jennifer, who eventually married new money, and who is not exactly a career woman, is portrayed with surprising depth and sensitivity by the writers: she has flaws and layers and a great deal of inner grit. In the early 1980s, Pat Archer, champion of organic farming, enrolled on a women’s studies course, becoming the show’s first feminist. She also changed the family newspaper from the Express to the Guardian, which, undoubtedly, she still takes.