Despite my tireless ethnographic devotion to Everyday Stories of Country Folk and, um, popular culture in all its forms, I can’t stand The Archers!!! There, I’ve said it.
Still, like the Hoffnung speeches, I recommend it highly to foreigners. The world’s longest-running radio serial [zzzzz], it makes a perfect portrait of daily life in Middle England, showing what we’re up against—a complement to Watching the English. For Stewart Lee’s somewhat different take on being English, see here.
I do realize that social change has come to Ambridge—indeed, Peter Hitchens moans that the series has become a vehicle for liberal and left-wing values and agendas (“all kinds of sexual revolution stuff and ultra-feminist propaganda”) (PAH! Nay, YAY!). But its core plots still revolve around riveting issues like the loss and rediscovery of a pair of spectacles, and competitive marmalade-making, The scripts are an inexhaustible catechism of cliché that I believed to have expired along with my great-aunts (“Ooh I shouldn’t really…” “And more power to her elbow, that’s what I say!”—the latter perhaps constituting evidence of Hitchens’s “ultra-feminist propaganda”?)
So despite occasional daring updates to the world-views and vocabulary of the “characters” (sic: see below) since 1950, it’s always going to be trapped in a time-warp: the visual image that the series still conjures up today is surely the photo above (note for any Chinese, Chuvash, or Bulgarian readers: YES, this is how we all dress).
As a Chinese immigrant struggling to perceive the underlying ideology of being English, Xiaolu Guo realised that
the drama, with its apparently apolitical presentation of “an oasis of rural England outside the currents of history” is really offering a supremely political position, a peculiarly British ideology: one that privileges endless indirectness and lethargy, endless deflection of real anger and debate, and endless acceptance of the status quo.
The wiki article on The Archers makes fascinating reading, with some drôle diachronic byways, not least on the irritating and inescapable theme-tune Barwick Green—a maypole dance, FFS [Can it be that you have suddenly abandoned your mission to document rural culture? Not Exotic enough for you?—Ed.] (cf. Morris dancing as a suitable riposte to the haka), endowed with “the genteel abandon of a lifelong teetotaller who has suddenly taken to drink”, as Robert Robinson observed.
The 1954 recordings were never made available to the public and their use was restricted even inside the BBC, partly because of an agreement with the Musicians’ Union.
Oh well, that’s one good cause to which the MU has been putting my subscription. But when a new stereo version was recorded in 1992 (quelle horreur!),
the slightly different sound mixing and more leisurely tempo reportedly led some listeners to consider the new version inferior, specifically that it lacked “brio”.
“Brio” is indeed the mot juste. Bless.
A 2011 folk-rock version by Bellowhead was well received, however:
For further windows on changing performance practice, see e.g. Mahler, vibrato, jazz, Daoism; Taruskin; the Wimbledon and Pearl and Dean themes. Not forgetting Pique Nique by Ibert’s brother Edouard—an oeuvre that has everything that Barwick Green lacks, despite their shared 6/8 metre (can we have a Bulgarian version, please?). See also By the sleepy lagoon.
Anyway, my main reason for this unseemly rant is to alert you to a brilliant parody that John Finnemore did in 2014, for which I am precisely the target audience:
[Announcer:] And now on Radio 4—unbelievably—it’s time to accidentally hear a bit of The Archers again.
with all the stereotypes lovingly exposed—
“Hello, one of the men who always sounds tired!”
“Hello, one of the unsufferably wry women…”
“Hello, one of the women with an accent! You’d think that would make it easier to tell you apart from the others, but… no.”
He continues the theme here:
… doomed endlessly to repeat the same morality tale of how all men are feckless idiots with terrible ideas, all women are joyless wet blankets who are nonetheless powerless to stop them.
Indeed, the great Tony Hancock did a spoof as early as 1961: