Opinion: 'There's nowt real about radio farm drama'

Carting sugar beet in Norfolk

Carting sugar beet, just one of the back-breaking jobs once familiar down on the farm. Never a mention for such arduous tasks in The Archers, an everyday story for country folk - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

An acquaintance with nothing better to do asked for my views on the use of challenging storylines with a topical flavour in one of many soaps he follows to get out of washing-up and other domestic treats. 

I’ve never been all that keen on soaps since neck-and-crop latherings in the old tin bath moored by the kitchen fire. I can still hear wireless strains of Friday Night is Music Night drowning out a raucous concerto of squeals  and splashes. 

Special agent Dick Barton did inspire a crop of post-war adventures on and around our disused aerodrome, complete with torn trousers, scabby knees and Spitfire impressions on a bike. 

Mrs Dale’s Diary prompted only snorts of derision whenever it revealed how much she worried about Jim. He was a doctor in a comfortable middle-class area ,for goodness sake, and hardly needed all this mother-hen treatment every afternoon around four o’clock. Pull yourself together woman! 

We flirted with The Archers, drawn like so many to Ambridge antics by that wonderfully uplifting signature tune, second only to the stirring introduction to Sports Report at Saturday teatime. However, it soon became obvious that Dan, Doris  and  the rest around Brookfield Farm knew far less about rural going-on than us. 

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No mention of marathon working hours, meagre wages, tied cottages, knockin’ and toppin’ sugar beet along icy rows before turning them into piles awaiting lifts to the factory. A whiff of feudalism still drifted over country toil in the 1950s. 

Walter Gabriel  provided Ambridge comic relief with his bucolic catchphrase “Me old pal, me old beauty” and a few yarns about what his old granny used to say. Tom Forrest sounded as if he knew the difference between a  swede and a turnip and could tell a gamekeeper from a poacher. But the rest was rather bland despite daily attempts to bow out on a cliff-hanger. 

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I was lured into distant reflections by a letter to this newspaper denouncing topics in The Archers “full of depression and despair” after a staple diet of the “gentler, kinder ,neighbourly lifestyle of previous years”. 

Well, the world’s longest  running soap in any format with over 19,000 episodes behind it and a regular following of about five million now bills itself as “a contemporary drama in a rural setting” rather than the cosy “everyday  story of country folk”. 

Even so, it would be wrong  to suggest  introduction of  darker themes has been confined to recent times. I recall how thousands took umbrage over Ambridge as long ago as  September, 1955 when Grace Archer died in a fire while trying to rescue her horse Midnight. 

The fact this dramatic demise coincided with the launching of ITV, the UK’s first commercial television station  - and therefore a big rival to the BBC-- led treasonably to allegations that poor Grace had been sacrificed on the altar of commercial expedience. 

While Mrs Dale might have avoided such cynical shallows in her leafy suburbs, harsh reality impinged on the programme in 1963 when Ellis Powell was sacked from the title role after revelations about her private life and replaced by Jessie Matthews. 

There were uncanny echoes of that episode and, for some, Grace Archer’s sudden exit, in The Killing of Sister George, a 1964 play by Frank Marcus turned into a film four years later starring the incomparable Beryl Reid. 

Sister George is a much-loved character in the popular radio series Applehurst, a nurse who sees to medical needs  and personal problems of local villagers. In real life she is a gin-guzzling, cigar chomping, slightly sadistic masculine woman, the very opposite of the sweet role she plays. 

When she discovers her character is to be killed off, she becomes increasingly difficult to work and live with, a trait worthy of an unlikely mixture of sympathy and fear. I explored this theme at length during a 1993 interview on BBC Radio Norfolk with Norman Painting,  longest-serving actor in a single soap opera as Philip Archer from pilot programme days in 1950 until his death in 2009. 

He also wrote over 1,200 episodes under the name Bruno Milne. The title of his autobiography, Reluctant Archer, offers a useful hint as to drawbacks of living two distinctly different lives for so long. 

Perhaps all who get too close to soap characters for comfort should heed the immortal words of Conway Twitty when he warbled  “It’s Only Make Believe”. 

Skip's Aside

With a couple of gentle giants still nodding their way through all seasons on the farm where my father worked, and a riding school at full canter just up the road, I accepted horses as an integral part of my boyhood world.

Even as full-scale mechanisation lurked along the headlands and our pretty twisty lanes waited for a trickle of traffic to turn into a roaring torrent our four-legged friends whinnied and snorted at such mundane progress.

My first harvest adventure saw me tossed like a small wheatsheaf on to Snowball’s back for a dramatic finale, a triumphant trek to the stack with last load of summer. I clung on for dear life, frightened of banging my head against the clouds or making an ignominious slide into pointed stubble.

Bigger boys and seasoned men chuckled at my discomfort before forming a human ladder to deliver me safely back to earth. I have shied away from heights ever since. A short career as a “howd-gee” boy suited my low-level temperament much better, leading the horse as a wagon trembled with sheaves.

I yelled a warning to workers balanced precariously on top to hold tight. Sadly, the art of doing two things at once often proved beyond me and there were times when a lofty hideaway would have been useful as protection against retribution at refreshment time.

Another telling experience in my equine education is worth trotting out to help explain a general reluctance to find these creatures endearing. Billy Ketteringham, son of Florrie, an amiable and patient next-door neighbour, did most of his travelling by pony and trap. Whenever he tethered up our way I kept on about being taken for a ride and imploring Tiny to “gee up” into heart of The village.

Billy relented one day and I sat proudly beside him as we clip-clopped to the Ploughshare pub where he left me in charge while he met an old chum from the dealing circuit. I felt control slipping away as Tiny agitated for renewed action.

I stood up on the seat and shrieked for help. Billy emerged just in time to save me from auditioning for a part in Ben Hur’s chariot race. I never pestered for a ride again.

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