BBC Radio 4's - The Archers, as Postmodern Drama.

by Linda Tame, M.A., B.A. (Hons.)  

'Postmodernism has not yet taken place, although it is talked about as if it were a central theme of contemporary theory and cultural practice.'

(Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism by Johannes Birringer)


Go to Introduction
Go to Historiography & Myth
Go to Politics
Go to Making Theatre
Go to Audience & the Internet

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Please note, the Appendices referred to in this document relate to a text presented as a paper document. These are not incuded in the HTML format. However, where an appendix refers to data retrieved from the Internet, these may be searched through the hot-links to UK Media Radio Archers, the archives of the Telegraph, Times and Guardian newspapers, Coronation Street Home Page and The Lynda Snell Society Home Page.  Also included are links to other web-sites that may be of interest in regard to this work. These are provided to offer the the reader illimitable options in constructing their own narrative. Each link will point up further links that the reader may choose to follow. The reader's steps can BE retraced by use of the 'Back' button on their Net Browser and alternative directions can be picked up along the way.  However, given the date of publication of this work and the dynamic nature of the internet - many of these links may now be out of date.



Copyright, Vanessa Whitburn

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I t is my intention to explore Radio 4s The Archers from three perspectives. First of all the historiography and myth that surrounds the programme and is the programme. Secondly the politics that influence writers and audience. Thirdly, I explore The Archers in relation to the making of Invisible Theatre, (drawing upon the work of Augusto Boal) both with its audience and by it audience. I also introduce the Internet as instrument of influence and a theatrical space.

All discussion is governed by theories of postmodern thinking and drama. These include the use of myth, technology, disrupted narrative, the fluidity of boundaries (between the audience and the cast and between reality and fantasy), the affect of aural space and the disruption to real-time, that can be converted into virtual real-time. Because postmodern thinking works to collapse boundaries and recognises an inter-relatedness, these topics are not discussed in a purely linear fashion but interwoven throughout. Whilst one particular theme is the focus, other themes will touch upon the subject, showing the overall connectedness of the area explored. It is intended to show that any particular topic touches upon and throws light upon another.

The focus changes and reappears but it is hoped that, as in the oft repeated storylines of the programme, at each turn a new perspective comes into view. To give up some of the control that writing in a linear fashion offers, is to open up the possibility of being engulfed by chaos and muddle. I believe this has not happened, as some degree of control has been exercised. It has been exercised by keeping within the wood, (to borrow a metaphor from Heidegger) at the same time as allowing interesting pathways to be followed, as they come into view. This metaphor suggests containment, as a means of avoiding chaos. It is perhaps a more appropriate form of control, as it allows for a focus upon a space, out of which ideas emerge, rather than keeping ideas within a specific paradigm, thereby risking an oppression which mitigates against innovation. That is to say, a linear discussion is more concealing than revealing and that the radial process lessens concealment.

Allowing ideas to mingle is not to be confused with a Modern stream of consciousness approach, rather, it is that the ideas flow around a decentred whole, where the position of the centre shifts and as it shifts, what it shows of itself changes. In the less easily defined space between subject and discourse is the energy that may bring new possibilities or new truths. This is very much in keeping with Heidegarrian thinking and Heidegger's concept of Aletheia is a significant influence here.

Many of my thoughts around radio drama in general, I find echoed in Patrice Pavis' Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture and whilst specific quotations are acknowledged, I also recognise that Pavis reinforces and broadens much of my thinking throughout. Three publications about the programme have been heavily relied upon to trace its broadcast history and the character's personal histories. These are: The Book of the Archers, The Archers: The True Story and The Archers: The Official Inside Story. The question of 'true' history is encapsulated in the titles of the latter two books that compete for authority in their titles and were published at the same time. These caused much media interest in the public scrap that ensued between their respective writers, William Smethurst, a one-time editor of the programme and Vanessa Whitburn, the current editor.

I am also grateful to the courteous and generous assistance of Camilla Fisher, the official Archers Archivist, for not only answering my endless questions but also for sharing some of her particular awareness about The Archers and its differences from and similarities to, other dramas of the genre, that is generally described as soap-opera. I have also been helped by the collective wisdom of those listeners who share their interest in The Archers through the Internet and who have been willing to play with me, wrack their brains and their memories for me and suffer my endless provocation in our mutual development of the cyberspace village of Ambridge, that is officially known as the UK Media Radio Archers Newsgroup. I have also been much assisted in my research by the resources of the Internet in general but particularly the archive material available in the electronic Times, Telegraph, (daily and Sunday editions) and The Guardian. Conversations with members of the cast, the Editor Vanessa Whitburn, and the senior producer, Keri Davies proved invaluable.

In 'Making Theatre' with members of the Archers Internet Newsgroup I was much helped by the support of Carole Boyd, who gave generously of her time and of her Archers character to allow it to happen. It could not have taken place without the willingness of a professional actor to allow the boundaries between spectator, protagonist, designer, director and writer to collapse. As one of the leading members of The Archers cast, Carole Boyd's help has been immeasurable in many ways. Her willingness to collude with the fantasy and dissolve boundaries has itself been an exercise in postmodern drama.

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Historiography & Myth.  

The historiography of the programme discloses some contradictory views about its genre and if there is no agreement about genre, is this not to suggest that what we have is something resembling the collage image of the postmodern?

Despite a lack of critical consensus and clarity about what defines postmodern drama at this time, there is a commonly held idea that it is easier to see, than to describe. Therefore, my subject may seem to go against what unity of opinion there is, in writing about radio, a medium which necessarily defies visual perception, within a postmodern framework. But limiting the exploration of the postmodern to the visual element, is to cause the postmodernist to fall into the trap of his/her own ideology, by privileging and marking out the visual as a centre and removing other approaches to the margins. Furthermore, as in what is recognised as postmodern drama, narrative seems to have been left behind, it may seem unlikely that a radio drama that relies heavily on narrative could qualify. But again, it would be wrong to adopt rigid rules about what constitutes postmodern drama, for even where the narrative is left behind, it somehow remains.

Examples of postmodern drama that maintain a narrative are found in Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine (1979) which presents itself as a play about gender, in a society learning to be comfortable with sexual choice. This play uses narrative to drive the action forward, whilst staying with the focus. Act 1 narrates all sorts of immorality going on, that's kept private and then Churchill jumps a hundred years between Act 1 and Act 2, although for her characters it is only twenty-five years later. A different sort of narrative is generated In Janice Galloway's The Trick is to Keep Breathing. (1995) Galloway offers a static narrative with a woman who goes over and over her story. What is interesting in radio, is how the narrative is often used to express a revision of its own past, by repeating stories. This is discussed later, in greater detail. Much of what constitutes the postmodern in The Archers comes from the fact that the programme has run for as long as it has. Consequently, the programme has a history, and myths have accrued to that history. The myths and the history are a part of what draws the audience closer to the action and eliminates or confuses/complicates the boundaries between audience/listener and actor/perfomer.

Whilst today The Archers is referred to as a radio soap, the question about the appropriateness of this genre classification remains. Peter Kerry Butler, an Archer's scriptwriter since 1994, posed the question: 'Is The Archers a soap?' to the Internet Archer's news group, UMRA and his asking the question suggests that, even as a writer on the programme, he is unsure about the genre in which he is working. Contrary to Butler's uncertainty, William Smethurst begins his account: 'The Archers The True Story, The History of Radio's Most Famous Programme,' by stating that it was intended as a soap-opera. This does not mean that it is even though Smethurst states: 'In the Spring of 1948 the BBC in London was busy planning a new and ambitious drama serial. It was to be what Americans called a soap opera...' Clearly one writer is not consciously following the rules appertaining to genre, if he is unclear about what genre he's working in.

Given the current Editor's disdain for melodrama and the OED's assertion that melodrama characterises the genre of soap-opera, the question of what the creative team think they are creating in terms of genre remains unanswerable, if a consensus is to be achieved. We can argue that Whitburn is deceiving herself in her claim that melodrama is not present in The Archers but the documented history of the programme also records that the intention was to create a programme that would work as a means of passing on agricultural advice and guidance to farmers, in a post-war climate of rationing and regeneration. This is not soap opera. This educative aim of the programme is the one given in July 1996, by its originator, Godfrey Baseley (by then aged 91) who wrote in The Times (Appendix 02) that it was 'created as an educational programme for the farming community' and that it was styled to be 'a sort of country Dick Barton without the violence.' It doesn't sound as if Baseley thought he was creating a soap-opera but the sorts of myths that surround the history of this programme are characterised by Baseley's stated intention and another's claim on historical truth.

Although it is also self-evident that soap operas are often a vehicle for raising public awareness of social issues, such as recent storylines in Eastenders about breast cancer and Aids, and that these may include an element of advice and guidance, the notion of education is not, unlike The Archers, the intention behind its creation. The exception here may be the more overtly issues focused Brookside, and where the current Archers Editor has also worked. There is another important aspect in the historiography of the programme that reinforces the challenge to classifying The Archers as a soap; this aspect is embedded in the way the programme was promoted prior to its first broadcast to the Midland Region Home Service in Whit week, 1950.

Godfrey Baseley made the cast, 'improvise, talk to each other in character. . . [and then] put them into situations and made them react in the way they thought their characters would react, but without a script' (The Archers The True Story, p.23) These techniques are, as Smethurst points out, the very 'techniques that would be considered new and revolutionary in television drama in the Seventies.' (The Archers The True Story, p.23) More than this, Smethurst reports a process in which Baseley made Ambridge sound totally real, for he, 'Godfrey Basely, well known at that time for his BBC Midlands agricultural reports, was able to go there with his OB unit . . . and talk to the inhabitants.' (The Archers The True Story, p.23) This created an impression of the programme as the yet to be invented, fly-on-the-wall style documentary. In this promotional programme Baseley purports to talk to the inhabitants of Ambridge and in mixing fiction (the characters) with reality (Baseley), The Archers is launched from within a postmodern perspective that, whilst only identifiable in retrospect, is nonetheless one of the factors that leads at least one of its current writers to question whether, it truly fits a classification as soap-opera.

It is not the desire of the audience to make the characters factual that is unmatched in regard to other drama serials (especially soap-opera), but the way this device is used by Baseley. His invitation to the audience to believe in the documentary nature of the serial deliberately invites this response from the audience. This approach is unparalleled in its time and has resonance today with the way the audience reciprocates. I will return to this theme again in regard to the making of theatre.

The deliberate confusion of genre and the use of imaginary technology in a mock outside broadcast, is only one of several factors that marks the inception of The Archers as retrospectively postmodern. The retelling and reworking of myth percolates the storylines and connects with the collective psyche of the audience. This happens at several levels. First, there is the rural setting of Ambridge that allows the Arcadian idyll to be experienced vicariously by the audience. Whatever social problems the writers explore, there remains a sense of Ambridge as a place that belongs to the ideally rural or rustic. This too has much to do with the programme's origins. Smethurst claims that Baseley cast Gwen Berryman as Mrs Doris Archer, telling her: 'I don't want the character to have any accent at all. . . I want her to be recognised as a country woman in her manner and speech.' Doris Archer was to be of the country but not of any particular part of the country. Whether Smethurst's claim is accurate is not too important because the effect is the same, regardless of the intention. The effect is a constructed naturalness and a sense of the every man/woman.

The script discloses that Ambridge is located in the West Midlands but little more is known and the question about more exactly where Ambridge is, has regularly exercised its audience's intellect and provides for unclear boundaries between the fictional and non-fictional status of the programme. Further to this, Baseley collapsed the boundaries between the professional and non-professional actors by employing people like Gwen Berryman, who Smethurst describes as a 'middle-aged part-time actor' (Baseley's article in The Times refers to the actors as 'amateurs') and Bob Arnold, who was at the time better known as a broadcasting voice, to play his sister. Fifty years later Arnold is still in the cast! Baseley has been charged with using amateurs to keep Equity out of the salary negotiations but this truth is contested by Norman Painting (Phil Archer) who has also been in the cast since the beginning and wrote to The Times in disagreement. (Appendix 03) If not exactly amateurs the programme has certainly included a number of guest appearances of one sort of another from time to time.

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 Nietzsche first described the combination of the Apollonian with the Dionysian in Human All to Human in 1878 and it is this eternally becoming sense of self that works alongside more knowable, stable images in Ambridge. This combination is now recognised as a metaphor for the postmodern and is much used and expanded by Camille Paglia. Paglia reminds us that: 'Western landscape is about measured space perceived by man's eye. [whereas] Oriental landscape is a landscape of the mind. Illuminated from within.' (Sex, Art, and American Culture East and West p.151). This is pertinent to discussing radio drama for so much takes place in the landscape of the mind of the listener. Paglia described the unenlightened mind, which she associates with the Western Apollonian style, as seeing things in terms of form. In contrast, says Paglia, the 'enlightened mind sees the Void.' (Sex, Art, and American Culture East and West p.151.) I am not entirely in sympathy with this idea of seeing a void but prefer the notion that there may be something to be found in the void, if we focus upon it a little. To do this, we must bear in the mind the landscape as well, for it is the boundaries of the landscape that defines the void. In radio drama this void is the space between the performer/performance and the audience/receiver. Somewhere between the two, the imagination of the performer meets with imagination of the listener and it is here that Aletheia can occur.

In the village community the mythical ideal of the Arcadian image, that shapes the imaginary scene, provides a sense of Apollonian stillness and control within the cyclical pattern of Dionysian creativity, that is always in the process of becoming. The farming community is of itself forced into the repeating patterns of nature, that are in turn forced upon the fiction. Lambing season must return each Spring, harvest will always be a busy and anxious time in late Summer and so on.

The Archers is acknowledged to be the longest-running radio serial in the world and has been broadcast for fifty years. This status of longevity and the rural setting of day to day life, manifests into a cyclical pattern, as storylines return, alongside the recurring patterns of Nature year after year. It is the longevity of the programme that claims to be the 'everyday story of country folk' that drives writers to return to themes previously explored. If it is 'everyday' then inevitably, over time, there must be repetition. Everyday cannot be unique and yet to maintain its audience, a new viewpoint is brought to bear as each event occurs, within a constant, yet changing society. For example, the endless cycle of birth, marriage and death recurs, forming a Dionysian pattern, itself the epitome of the cyclical. Each time one of these events takes place is an opportunity to bring a new perspective.

The furore that arose when the young Jill Archer named her twins, Shula and Kenton in 1958 is hard to imagine at this distance of time, following a period when rather than being seen as avant garde, inventing names for children has been vogue with media celebrities and others. It would be barely worth a comment today but in the late fifties Jill was challenging the status quo. When her own son names his daughter Phillipa, after his own father and her daughter, Shula, names her son Daniel, after Phil's father, Jill is pleased at the recognition, though it was something she had been determined to resist for herself. It seems the new generation do not feel the need to reject the past or make statements about being modern in quite the same way as their parents. Shula and younger brother, David, seem not to need to show their difference and separation from their parents in quite the same way as their parents did. This sense of dynasty also relates to the Arcadian myth, where old English families work to maintain traditions whilst accommodating the new. The writers reflect a society that no longer feels impelled to be new, simply by reacting against what appears traditional.

A new viewpoint emerges from the writers, creating a story from within contemporary society, drawing a fresh and new response from an audience, that includes those who have listened since day one; those who have been regular listeners for a period of time; intermittent listeners; those who may have listened regularly for a time and then stopped listening for a while; those who are new to the programme; those who listen irregularly and so on. Fifty years is a long time and the audience is evolving as well.

As the fictional life of the characters change and repeats, so the audience also maintains a constant and stable core whilst others come and go. More than this, some of the cast have grown up as listeners and have identified with a particular character. For example Hedli Niklaus, who plays Kathy Perks, remembers herself listening at the time Lilian Bellamy, ne Archer, was "going through her divorce". She told me: "Yes, it's strange to belong to a series I listened to when homesick at University. I think it was Lilian's divorce then that kept me riveted." Who can recount the history as truth? False memory syndrome undoes the witnesses, for The Book of the Archers (Hedli Niklaus is one of the authors) tells us that Lilian and Ralph, her husband: 'drank and fought until Ralph's failing heart could no longer support his squire-like frame: he had a massive heart attack in 1979. He died three months later.' (The Book of the Archers p.72) There was no divorce! Hedli Niklaus blurs the boundary between being audience and actor and points to the historiography. Perhaps, she also gives us a clue about the appeal of the programme among a number of university students. It is a link with home, a motif of stability and perhaps a surrogate familiar family.

Writing history is fraught with pitfalls. It is not any less difficult to write (as here), about the writing of history. In both instances the facts are few, cause and effect is less a process of deduction, than it is of guesswork, often laced with a romanticised perspective and an unreliable memory. The title of Smethurst's book points up an ironic paradox. Smethurst titles his book 'The Archers The True Story.' One cannot see such a title as anything other than a monumental joke about deconstruction, whether intentional or not. The lack of truth, or the existence of many truths, is a part of what keeps the audience engaged with the myth. Stories about the programme, the creative team behind the actors, the policy makers of BBC drama production, and the programme's history, provide opportunities for endlessly credible works of faction that fill the book stalls, fully supported by background fictional works about the place and the people that live in Ambridge. Stories like that written by Smethurst are just that - stories! They claim a truth that is often unsupported by documentary evidence and as with all small communities, gossip quickly takes on the character of essential and undeniable truth.

Where Smethurst suggests Gwen Berryman suffered something of an identity crisis between herself and the role of Doris Archer we must suspect that it is Smethurst who, as a one time editor of the programme, has the real problem with discerning fact from fiction here, because he himself quotes Gwen Berryman saying: 'In the studio and on the air I feel, act and think exactly like Mrs Archer, but once outside the BBC I'm Gwen Berryman and as unlike Doris as it's possible to be.' However, seemingly confused between his one time role as editor and the role of recorder of 'true history' Smethurst claims to know the person better, as if she is a character he has created and he writes: '. . . in fact she was already confusing fiction with reality' and he cites as evidence that she would answer to the name of Doris and was upset if people mistook the actual wife of Berryman's stage husband for Doris Archer/Gwen Berryman. Then not content with interpreting meaning from behaviour, as if he is some omniscient Freudian analyst, he continues by speaking for others: 'Fellow actors were also surprised to find that her private note paper had from 'Doris Archer, Brookfield Farm, Ambridge, Near Borchester' printed on the top. (The Archers, the True Story, p.84)

Clearly part of the appeal of the programme is the willingness of the cast to collude with the audience's desire for their fantasies to be real. It is just as valid to interpret Berryman's attitude and behaviour, as one displaying an ego centredness about wanting to be identified by her public and of indulging her public in their fantasies. It is possible today to write to Lynda Snell and receive a reply impressively printed on a letter heading from the fictional Ambridge Hall (the Snell's residence). When I phoned the telephone number of Archers Addicts, (the programme's official fan club) I was told I was speaking to Kathy. In reality I was speaking to Hedli Niklaus, but she was happy to play along with the Ambridge fantasy if I wanted. I was, after all, phoning the telephone number of the Village Voice newspaper and it is reasonable to expect someone who lives in the village to take my call! When there is nobody in the office, callers can hear an answer phone message that changes from time to time, as it is recorded by various members of the cast, speaking in character. All works together to reinforce the Arcadian myth and the accessibility of the characters to their audience.

Would we find one of the characters in a TV soap answering the phone to their fans? I doubt it. This is because there is something about the particular character of the programme that causes a small BBC budget to drive the creative processes, rather than to oppress them. TV soap actors do not run fan clubs on behalf of the programme. Even more surprisingly the individual fan clubs relating to The Archers, are more often a collusion between actor and audience in playing along with the fiction. In the past there has been an Eddie Grundy fan club and even a Higgs Appreciation Society, which takes the surreal one step further, given that Higgs has never been heard in the programme and exists only by being talked about!

The fact that The Archers is created in a radio studio is particularly significant. Somehow, a visit to a radio studio doesn't disprove the reality of Ambridge in quite the same way as say, visiting the set of Coronation Street. A television studio visit is different. It discloses the falsity of the reality in presenting the visitor with the virtual Street. We cannot see Ambridge at the studio because the listener is sold imagination, not eyes, ergo not seeing it does not prove it is not real, any more than a failure to see God, disproves his/her existence to one who believes otherwise! The myth is perpetrated in all these different ways and if this is a sign of madness, it is a collective aberration between cast and audience. Even the current Editor has been heard to declare that Ambridge is very near to where she lives. Why shouldn't it be? She can imagine too.

If what goes on behind the scenes is less than the ideal rural idyll of Ambridge, it makes no difference, for Ambridge and its audience is impervious to any world other than its own. It's even impervious to the national weather. The topical inserts that are created to give a sense of immediacy and connection to the 'real' world deceive the audience into imagining a live and therefore real broadcast. Thus, the results of the General Election can be discussed as today's event; (as they were in May 1997 between Pat Archer and Clarrie Grundy) whereas television is more technically restricted from operating in this way. This, here and now sense of Ambridge, living in the same time/place zone as its audience does, however, run into trouble. When for instance a cricket match was rained off as an integral part of the story line in 1996, Michael Fish and his colleagues at the BBC Weather Centre, were declaring that a heat wave was cloaking the whole of England. Challenging the writers and producers when evidence of 'lack of reality' presents itself in this way is a game enjoyed by all parties. Challenged about the weather disjunction for example, on the BBC stand at the Good Food Show in November 1996, listeners were told by producer, Peter Wild, that this was because Borchester enjoyed a peculiar idiosyncratic climate, that was frequently at odds with the rest of the country.

Whilst the creative team play God with the weather and the futures of the characters, others write their own fictions about the programme and listeners reconstruct the past to suit themselves. We hear what we want to hear and remember what it suits us to remember. Running counter to our memories is the BBC Archers Archivist, Camilla Fisher but even this recorded truth is open to doubt, for who chooses what is to be recorded? Reference works such as The Book of the Archers that was first published in 1994 and records the bibliography of Ambridge's inhabitants describes the characters, but listeners may have a different perception. Whose view of whom is being chronicled?

Currently, Carole Boyd, who plays Lynda Snell, has written, in character, about the history and heritage of Ambridge. Not only is the supposed author, a character of fiction, much of what is claimed to be history is also a fiction! Lynda Snell's Ambridge Heritage will be published in September 1997 and speaking to a live audience at the Brighton Festival about the book, Carole Boyd comments: 'Of course as its written by Lynda, anything she can't verify she makes up. It's a lot a fiction actually.' The audience laugh but whether they are responding to the joke at its most superficial level or whether they see the more surreal comedy can't be judged. But the whole idea encapsulates much historiography about Ambridge, as

how can anyone verify the history of a fictional place? Only someone who is themselves a fiction can claim to do this and be taken seriously. An amusing scenario arises, as the archivist and editor check the veracity of the facts presented about a fiction, arguing over whether this or that did, or could, or might be an unknown, or little known, piece of history, about the place or one of its inhabitants.

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And Politics  

The blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction effects a political and educative element, that is in part intentional in the drama's origins, whilst also appealing to a wider audience. The political sometimes emerges in the form of Invisible Theatre that is assisted by an audience who actively draws the fiction into the real world.

To claim that The Archers supports Augusto Boal's contention that the theatre, 'is a weapon. A very efficient weapon.' (from the Forward: Theatre of the Oppressed),

may at first glance seem a little strong, for as already acknowledged, The Archers is not alone in raising social issues to public awareness, from within the genre of the soap opera but to generate the sort of storylines that has the Home Secretary approached and asked for a response, as was Michael Howard in the winter of 1994 over the gaoling of Susan Carter, is hardly apolitical. When a story captures the imagination of the public and especially if the story coincides with reported miscarriages of justice, as the Susan Carter story did, then theatre and politics are acting out similar dramas. Who really knows the truth and what has truth to do with

justice? This was the issue for Susan Carter. The following is a sample of the media response to this story and demonstrates a version of Boal's Invisible Theatre that emerged when a listener, Jenny Webb, produced posters demanding 'Free the Ambridge One.' Vanessa Whitburn chronicles the spillover in this way:

In 1974 Boal protests that Brecht's staging failed to 'complete the cycle [by] destruction of the barriers created by the ruling classes. First, the barrier between actors and spectators is destroyed...' (Theatre of the Oppressed: The Forward) insists Boal. Webb crosses the barrier and enters the action, but she takes the drama into the wider world of politics and public debate. Webb's intervention is reflective of how Boal's Invisible Theatre strives for and encourages a political dialectic between actor and spectator but takes the debate beyond the theatre and on to completing the cycle. For Boal this means there ceases to be a division between the two, as both become the protagonist and change is brought about. Power is given, or at least appropriated, by those who thought they had none. Then the circle is complete.

The Archers demonstrates an ability to bring apparently opposing political positions into the same space and to generate material that appears favourable, regardless of difference. It is recorded that between 1958 and 1962 the Daily Telegraph's Gallup Poll voted The Archers the country's favourite radio programme, whilst at the end of this period the Daily Worker reported: 'Its faults are plain to anyone who is socially conscious, and its virtues are clear to anyone with a taste for the little dramas of everyday life. It seems that within a political arena, The Archers works to effect a collage of political viewpoints that allows a range of standpoints and values to be presented, without alienating those at the other end of a political divide. This seems clear evidence of a decentring that has evolved since its early days.

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And Making Theatre.  

It is the radio as the theatrical space that inspires the imagination and facilitates the Invisible Theatre because it uses the aural, 'without the almost invariable accompaniment of the visual, which we find in nature as well as in art. (Radio - An Art of Sound, p.14)

Radio is the theatre of the mind, a medium that limits the audience to the aural sense and requires the active participation of its audience to complete the performance. &127;Because it works through the imagination, much of the performance takes place in the mind of the spectator. The imagination can merge the boundaries between the external and internal, the visible and the invisible, so seamlessly, that a connection between the action and a listener's beliefs, values and prejudices is unconsciously made with their internal world. This bridge is constructed largely by each individual member of the audience, who is the designer, costume maker, location Manager, and everything else that is visual. Once the imagination is working, the possibilities around meaning, interpretation, message, subtext and so on become virtually endless. Radio is a potent force for political manipulation where the images and issues explored can be so easily woven into, or attached to, more visual experiences or familiar scenarios. Capitalists and workers, the oppressors and the oppressed, the traditional and the new, are all part of life and each event in Ambridge can become a metonym for any one of these and more.

In Ambridge the world seems to travel along much the same tracks as our own and this is further advanced by its longevity and the resulting life span and life cycle of the characters, that are traced in very nearly real-time. Only nearly, as since the programme began, some of the older characters should have died after a broadcasting life of fifty years begun in fictional late middle-age. Would the audience have allowed this? Dan Archer, the focus of the story in the early days, gave way to his son Phil and faded away until it was possible to allow Dan to die. Yet in some ways the characters live on through the storylines that brings the past back to the present, as done recently with the creation of the Dan Archer Memorial Playground, or the discovery in Martha's cottage of some of her home-made wine. And even here there appears to be a deliberate intention by the writers to merge fact with fiction, as when Mollie Harris, the actor who played Martha died and a few weeks later this was not only repeated in the story line but her obituary states Harris 'made gallons of home-made wine.' Mollie Harris' obituary includes nearly as much about the life of the fictional Martha Woodford as it does about Mollie Harris! (Appendix 05) Though the characters are no longer in the studio they leave a kind of inheritance and achieve a kind of immortality as they hover around this fictional village like a mist.

Sometimes the writers are allowed to play God and defeat death rather more successfully than Shelley's Frankenstein. The character, Tom Forrest, received a reprieve of sorts and had around ten years lopped off his age. Now, both known to be in their eighties, Uncle Tom and the actor who plays him, Bob Arnold, live on borrowed time in fiction and in reality. In contrast, his sister Doris died in 1980 with a given age of eighty. The same source gives Tom's date of birth as 1910 which makes him eighty-seven now. When Bob Arnold dies the audience will know there cannot be a replacement as happened recently when Roger Hume died and Eric Allan took over. This would be an artifice the audience could not endure, as imagination seems to be contained within the boundaries of a realistic life span. This notion of immortality has been turned into a huge joke by the writers with the character of Pru Forrest, Tom's wife. Pru has been a silent character for some years. Dame Judi Dench agreed to play her part for the 10,000th episode but Pru had been silenced many years previously and was soon dispatched to eternal speechlessness after a stroke in 1991! Remarkably, Pru has lived on in a nursing home ever since, either unable, or allowed, to die. External reality about how long a character can be allowed to live combines with audience demands around the tensions of reality versus the Arcadian myth. Between these opposing demands, the writers, directors and the editor must proceed to a consensus that always threatens to descend into chaos. That is, they must negotiate with their audience about how far they can extend the fiction, without losing the audience's tenuous but imaginative link with reality. Writers can play God, but only with the tacit consent of the audience, so that in this way the writers too perform within a role. Keeping faith with the audience's imagination allows reality to be distorted but not abandoned.

Through the medium of radio the audience is drawn into a simulated world, where "the real" is a personal world, that is both reproduced and original; for each listener draws his, or her, own picture. Sound, voice, music and words are the acoustic element of the theatre that is isolated by radio and transmitted to where the 'suspension of the time-space world of performance divides the theatre from itself. It cannot hold on to the reality it imagines and produces, and the lived body of work becomes a fiction the moment it vanishes'. (Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism, p.4) And yet, the fiction takes on its own reality in the mind of each member of the audience, throwing up myriad images and possibilities that exist, without ever being seen in the external world. There is a sense of each character being owned by the listener in an individual way. Not every listener is willing to see the actor behind the voice, for fear of destroying this very personal relationship. Whilst these elements are present in all radio drama and is shared in the process of reading a book, it is more potent in The Archers because the characters and the places have been imprinted on the mind of the audience over a long period of time. The audience can stroll in and out of this diaphanous theatre, with its invisible walls, in much the same way as Shakespeare's audience could choose how much of the play to watch.

Unlike the theatre and unlike other radio drama, the audience can alter the time continuum because the programme is broadcast twice daily, with an omnibus version on Sundays. This results in the programme achieving a daily and weekly rhythm that bears a distinct pattern. On Monday evening the audience are reminded of what happened on Friday evening and a new story line for the week arises. When this is repeated on Sunday the omnibus has fifteen minutes edited from the weekly episodes, to keep within the one hour of broadcast time. Two different versions of the week's events are always presented. If you listen in Europe to the BFBS version you can sometimes hear a very different narrative because they do not have time to include the topical inserts that are sometimes cut in to the UK broadcast. (Appendix 06) Where the peaks and troughs occur in the weekly editions they can never be more of a cliff-hanger than the Friday evening edition, as this needs to hold omnibus listeners though to the following week. This broken narrative requires each script to contain three minutes of editable material to fit the shorter Sunday broadcast time. Listeners who tune in for all the episodes hear different versions and identifying the extraneous material, provides for another activity while listening. As a result, the reality of the programme may be different depending upon when and where you receive it. This idea is taken up and extended by a listener, Simon Townley, who suggests Ambridge is a 'sort of meta-environment, a virtual universe where even houses (e.g. April Cottage) can disappear. . . ' (Appendix 07) The option to shift into real-time is a schedule that UK TV soaps will find more difficulty in achieving, as they do not go out live and the technicalities of visual inserts is more time consuming and therefore more difficult.

Unlike television, there are also more options in radio for the audience to choose the auditorium. Radio is more mobile. It can travel with the audience and allows the audience to give only aural attention, freeing them to include other activities during their listening time. This also throws up more opportunities for the dialogue to be disrupted than in other forms and to engender a postmodern feel. Not only can the audience leave an episode momentarily, or until it is next broadcast, the uniqueness of The Archers that stems from the span of its broadcast history, is an instrument that allows the narrative to be disrupted over a much longer period of time. An audience member can stop listening in say 1965, then begin listening again 1997 and experience something similar to coming back to a real place, that one knew earlier in one's life. Chris Harrison (an UMRA subscriber), compares this sense of time standing still whilst moving on, to the Australian TV soap, Neighbours:

Some of the audience takes part in promoting the programme, by acting as distributors, taping episodes and sending them to friends and relations around the world and as far as we know the BBC turns a blind to eye to this piracy. The result shapes an audience that is a form of Diaspora, one that spills over the UK boundaries at which the programme is chiefly aimed. It could be argued that a long running soap like Coronation Street offers the same opportunities, but it is not quite the same. Coronation Street has never been an idealised community in the same way as Ambridge, though elements of this can be found. Ambridge's roots travel further back in the psyche of its audience, namely, back to an Agrarian culture, beyond that of an industrialised society. These two cultures that literature and drama frequently set up in opposition to each other give copious opportunity for listeners with opposing views to pass judgement upon and reinforce their prejudices, about who is oppressing whom, about who is right and who is wrong and to identify and name their own heroes and villains.

Barwick Green, The Archers theme tune, an English Maypole dance, composed by Arthur Wood, underscores a traditional culture and the circular progress of the narrative. In Ambridge, it is not town versus country but the poorer peasant class versus the capitalist landowner. A few characters hold the small business or professional middle-ground, such as the local publican and his ambitious wife, the local solicitor (at the moment represented by Usha Gupta in an effort to represent the ethnic minorities) and the local doctor. The doctor has established a relationship with Usha, thereby satisfying the representation of the multiracial aspect for, the politically correct and liberal minded, Guardian reading listeners, who are reckoned to be the backbone of The Archers new-found popularity in the 1980s. Whitburn may claim that pressure groups do not set the storylines per se but the audience do influence the way a story is handled. Whitburn cannot overlook the way culture and society pressures and constructs the Ambridge 'self' beyond the creative imagination of the writers. It cannot survive unless it delivers an acceptable audience figure and the audience does therefore exercise considerable power over the constructed self that is collectively Ambridge and The Archers. In this traditional dichotomy between landowners and labourers, it is the Arcadian myth that readers and audience seek to maintain. In contrast to the urban world, where change formed an integral part of its creation, both in external reality and in its dramatic representation. Again, The Archers is compelled to coalesce. That is, to journey towards change within the cyclical constraints that are forced upon a community, where the everyday is always and inevitably linked to a recurring paradigm that characterises the natural world of farming and country life. The programme must deliver the reassurance of stability, favoured by the older listeners who want to stay with the familiar, whilst moving forward with themes that appeal and attract a newer and younger audience.

When in the 70s the writers declared that Shula should go on the pill it was eventually decided that the majority of the audience would find this unacceptable. In a bizarre drama of an unrecorded story line they agreed to put Shula on the pill, but not to tell the listeners. Those listeners who later read Joanna Toye's, Shula's Story, learned that Shula had been far more sexually active at this time than the radio audience had been told. The Daily Express' columnist the late Jean Rook joined in 'making theatre' by writing that Shula Archer stood out as a 'lush', ' busty' and 'sprouting' character. Rook wrote again when she felt the plot had become 'squelchy' and the dialogue 'compost'. Rook is one of many media people that The Archers can name among its listeners. These listeners have access to a public and political platform on which to place their demands about how a story line should proceed. It's as if the audience feels it owns the programme in some way and is entitled to exercise influence. Politicians, such as Neil Kinnock have made suggestions that reflect to his political viewpoint; whilst more recently, Nigel Jones, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham declared that the scriptwriters hadn't done their research properly, after a character described Cheltenham town as 'dreary'. Jones said he would write to suggest that another character might 'redress the balance'. Perhaps this demand for political correctness and balance is in part due to the mission to inform farmers, as the seed that gave birth to the drama. However, this is not all it is. It is also about the way the programme has acquired a persona that appears to mirror the audience's values, however disparate these values are. When individuals are confronted by an alternative viewpoint, it seems to arouse passions and the normal literary devices of irony, different narrative voices and authorial autonomy are disallowed. It is as if the programme conveys an illusion of authenticity and any perceived pronounced subjective bias must be challenged, for fear of its subversive power.

Perhaps it is also the cosiness of Ambridge that deceives us into expecting that everything we hear will work to reassure us. The AGA in Jill Archer's kitchen symbolises homely goodness and a warm centre. In contrast, were the AGA in the kitchen of a character in a Joanna Trollope novel, whose stories have hatched the genre, Aga Saga; it would be suggestive of middle-class values about country living as ideal healthy and wholesome surroundings, that will be subverted in the narrative. Whilst these notions may cross over in the mind of the audience, there is in the Brookfield kitchen a practicality that defies idealisation. Here, the AGA is not only a symbol of centre and of homeliness, it is also a piece of technology that allows new-born lambs to survive. It is also deceptive to perceive the Brookfield kitchen, or the Archer family, as the centre of the drama, even though it is their family name that carries the title. The drama no longer focuses on the title family today. The centre has shifted. In 1996 it was Eddie Grundy (played by actor, Trevor Harrison) the marginalised farmer who runs an inefficient establishment known as Grange Farm, who took centre stage, as indeed the Grundy family have done for several years. Today the new owner of the estate, that Eddie rents his land from, is an Ambridge farmer who leads a consortium of businessmen. The businessmen see farming a nothing more than another commodity on which to turn a profit. Recently his new landlord was heard in Eddie's home participating in a drunken singsong. Social boundaries are changing. The centre shifts and shifts again. It is perhaps this change that forms a part of the Archers new found popularity since the 1980s. Trevor Harrison appeared in more episodes in 1996 than any other character, which is a neat reversal of the much reported comment by Neil Kinnock, in his reference to the writer and politician Jeffrey Archer, that: he would have nothing to do with one of the Grundy's oppressors. In the fiction the Grundy family are failures in the capitalist system but in the reality of the contracts that the BBC offers the actors (they get paid for appearance per episode only) Harrison is a major player! Fact and fiction make a topsy-turvy world when looked at together.

The recycling of the storylines and the de-centring of characters provides for endless opportunities for revision of the past. Recently, Dan Archer's grandson, David, disputed with his Father, Phil, over the wisdom of expanding the farm. Phil's wife, Jill, reminds Phil of a similar dispute between himself and Dan years earlier. What is different, according to Phil, is the language of respect. Phil claims he would not have told his Father that: "he was past it." (The Archers - 25th/26th June 1997).

Handling the stories has changed too. As already described, political power does, to a degree, now rest with the audience because of the need for listening figures. This rather loosely exercised power is open to manipulation by the editor only if storylines and characters are presented in a way that exacts the listener's sympathy. Previously, it seems, Government had a much more hands on approach and listeners' hearts and minds were more overtly a commodity to be shaped. It is claimed there is now:

The writers have a history of morphing characters before this term was invented. If it suited them or the fashion of the moment they thought nothing about revising a character to suit the plot, as they did when fruit machines were made legal. Tom Forest, the pillar of all that is moral and to this day a firm believer in traditional Christian values, became obsessed with playing these and thus delivered a timely warning of the potentially destructive force such machines could unleash. As Uncle Tom, at that time and since, has shown no signs of addiction to anything else, the revision of his character at this time was a commanding challenge to the listener's willingness to suspend disbelief.

Happenings that take place physically and can be viewed visually by a television audience, include clues to the fiction in the visual subtext that are absent in radio. In the listener's mind there is a real farm and a real kitchen. No, wobbling walls or false sky or the other reminders of the fabrication of the happening, as can appear in television. In reality, however, just about everything heard over the radio is fabricated through technology and to a much greater extent than in television. Different studios used to convey different environments like the echoes around in a church or the open space of the farmyard. In television location shooting might be used if the set appeared too manufactured but in radio all this is produced by the use of technology. Reality is rarely more than virtual. The actors do not even create the sounds associated with their actions, as these are performed by the Spot Effects, who work around the actors, shooting off pop guns and pouring water over alka-seltzer tablets, to create such sounds as the opening and pouring of a glass of champagne or flapping an umbrella half open and closed to suggest a flying bird. All this technology works to enhance, rather than detract, from the reality of the listener's experience. Yet, these devices are not concealed from the audience, as they are regularly demonstrated at BBC events around the country. Somehow, it doesn't matter because what takes place in mind of the individual when listening to an episode seems to remain separate from their outer experience of the artifices used in recording.

Given that the radio studio offers a greater, rather than lesser opportunity to affect the visual imagination of the audience and to collapse the boundaries between fact and fantasy, there are clear dangers to the authenticity of the drama for its audience, if the means and methods of production become known. But The Archers draw their audience into a world that can seem more surreal than that of a studio set. What has been used over and over is a device akin to Augusto Boal's Invisible Theatre. For example, when the audience was invited to an 'Archers Garden Party' at Osterley House in the summer of 1995, fact and fiction initially mingled together without one threatening to extinguish the other. The actors appeared as themselves and talked about their characters. They signed autographs, carefully writing the name of their character beneath their own signature. There were, however, other elements in the mise en scne that worked to decentre the characters and draw attention away from the stage, that had been erected but where, at this time, nobody was performing. There were around the grounds a number of stalls selling produce manufactured in the mythical Ambridge. Pat Archer's organic yoghurt and ice cream from Bridge Farm, John Archer's pig roast (a regular event in Ambridge) were there, competing for attention.

Photographs recording past events in the village, along with Archers memorabilia jostled for attention in a surreal world, that seemed neither real nor unreal. The audience were initially allowed to behave as a normal audience and collected in front of the stage to question the production team and participate in competitions. All this was reassuringly conventional and even the opportunity to claim to know unrecorded facts such as, who was driving the car that caused Mark Hebden to swerve into a tree, was a subtle subversion; how can anyone actually know the unwritten history of a non existent event! Such thoughts did not trouble the Archers fans, as far as one could see. Then it all changed.

The final competition was for a home made hat. Suddenly the audience were either participants in a real event in the unreal Ambridge, or at the very least present at an actual village event, where the actors dissolved into characters in the drama and were now judges or competitors, along with each other and with their audience. At this point the separation between protagonist and spectator dissolved. Contrary to the sort of chaos that postmodern thinkers sometimes foresee something closer to a coalition resulted. Actors and audience had come together, reflective of the way Habermas argues for consensus between competing narratives.

However, this moment of unity was unstable and was transitory, for it signalled the conclusion of the event. Nothing further could be offered and the now united the group broke up into its own smaller groups, re-forming as the disparate individuals they had been when they arrived several hours earlier. For a short time all had shared the space in a twilight world, that was somewhere between fact and fiction but was not one nor the other. Not, either/or but both/and. What had taken place was akin to deterritorialization of the kind Pavis describes as resulting in 'being able to create a minor-becoming.' (Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture p.80) Pavis has in mind the deterritorialization of language but what the creative team of this radio drama did was to deterrtorialize the theatrical space in a psychological sense, whilst to an extent maintaining the image of a theatre in the physical space. Because it takes place on radio, the psychological space is especially important to its audience. Here again the lack of visual clues plays a significant part in creating the mise en scne.

The audience creates its own mise en scne and this may vary widely within each listener's mind. More than the visual media, radio requires its audience to actively participate in the design of the set and to an extent in casting the characters. The Editor can choose the actor and the actor can create the voice but the audience chooses the character's physiognomy and all other physical aspects. Radio writers can disrupt the mental picture drawn of a character by introducing information about what colour their hair is for example, or to suddenly tell us that Joe Grundy has a beard, which was news to some listeners in the summer of 1996. But will the listener believe the writer?

Opportunities to reinforce the collective imagination are offered in the fan club through invitations to visit Ambridge and by sleight of hand, participants will find themselves driving past Hollerton Junction and entering the village of Ambridge itself. If they could follow their own progress at a short distance they would witness themselves followed by a small party of workers removing the signs and restoring another sort of reality.

Whilst it is also possible to visit the set of Granada's Coronation Street it is not quite the same, as it is not possible to retain this uncertain link in the mind between external reality and internal fantasy. As observed by Chief Michael Joe (an aboriginal leader from Canada) when he visited the Coronation Street set, it is the everydayness of the British soap opera in contrast to the more glamorous lifestyles presented in American television that makes it more real and something we can relate to, but he added that whilst enjoying his visit it 'did take away some of the magic' (Coronation Street Web-site June 1997 - Appendix 11).

Return to start of document.

And The Audience and The Internet.  

Many experiences of involving the audience by intermingling them with Ambridge residents are recorded by Smethurst, one of which (in 1985) involved the audience trailing around a real village, as events took place and had them ending up back at the theatre in Newbury, where they began. This is where the delicate relationship between writer and listener, over the prerogative to form the character, is potentially hazardous and much is often left unclear. Seeing the character portrayed can seem a betrayal of integrity to the listener, who knows better than anyone how they look in reality! However, the development of the Internet has brought a new dimension to bear upon the interrelation between cast, writers, producers and audience.

The development of the Internet has spawned a kind of anarchy and given rise to a means of communication where the sender can be largely anonymous and out of reach of the receiver. Looking at these newsgroups, in general, one notices a common tendency for contributors to express their views often ungraciously and often overbearingly. The technology distances contributors and works to allow interaction that is unrestrained in its language and representation. Along with this there has emerged a manner of netiquette, that can be used as a sort of shibboleth to exclude newcomers or to intimidate them and drive them down the pecking order. UK Media Radio Archers, (UMRA) is regarded a something nearing uniqueness on the Internet, as subscribers resist the general style of discourse found in many other groups and instead maintains a voice of tolerance, courtesy and openness that marks it out as different. Ruth Morrow, a relative newcomer to UMRA expresses a view that others have also articulated:

Those who subscribe to a similar newsgroup about Coronation Street also find it accommodating; again a reflection of the way relationships are portrayed in the programme? In contrast, the Eastenders newsgroup can be perceived quite differently and this again may be a reflection of the characters and why those who watch a particular programme are drawn to it. Does it reflect something of themselves, or at least a repressed part of self, that finds an opportunity to express itself through the net? One contributor to the Eastenders group claims to observe that great value is placed on correct grammar. This would seem to be an attempt to separate their identity from the object of their regard, whilst the style of discourse is more combative. What is unique to UMRA and reflective of a postmodern attitude in the contributors, is that the group does not feel compelled to contain its contents to the programme it claims to be discussing. For other newsgroups such fuzzy boundaries would provoke severe chastisement, known on the net as 'flaming'. As Helen Johns who is a regular subscriber put it:

Challenging the programme's mimetic potency serves only to provide certain listeners with another engaging topic for discussion in cyberspace. The Internet newsgroup brings a whole new dimension to The Archers as it provides a forum that draws the audience into the action and offers a space into which their ideas can be expressed and shared between the cast, the writers. Despite the current Editor's assertion that melodrama has no place in the narrative, the audience seems to express some appreciation for melodrama, as displayed in the 'Invisible Theatre' of the Internet. The ideas that listeners come up with, even if they are, tongue in cheek, are nothing if not melodramatic. (See examples in Appendix 14)

When newcomers arrive in the group they can sometimes seem brash, as they bring with them a style of discourse acquired in other dwelling places. As with Ambridge these new residents are soon reconstructed into model subscribers, or else they leave the cyber village of UMRA when they realise they cannot dismantle its Arcadian ethos. This regenerative effect is found in Ambridge, for example Sid Perks the wayward Birmingham lad with a shady past is now a respectable publican. Jack Woolley the grasping, thrusting businessman is now an avuncular old buffer and one wonders how he ever got the drive to make himself into the self-made man he is supposed to be. Some justification of changes to characters can be explained, by reason of cultural and environmental conditioning but others are less convincing in their metamorphosis.

The narrative of the drama and on the net is both transitory and stable. It exists but isn't somehow that important. In our visual age, the radio reinvents aural drama but The Archers does rather more because it uses the staging and scenery portrayed within the Arcadian myth and available to the imagination of its audience. This notion of myth is, however, subverted by the narrative, although this seems to escape the consciousness of listeners, who continually complain about the drama losing its original and long-standing Arcadian atmosphere and educational intention. The opposition between the casual view that is prejudiced by a yearning for the country idyll and the reality that lays beneath is marked by William Smethurst.

Those close to the Monarchy have seen The Archers as safe enough and respectable enough to allow them to actively participate in the programme, as did HRH Princess Margaret and the Duke of Westminster in June 1984. The Duke further agreed to become related to the fictional Caroline Bone; Ms Bone's Ambridge reputation as a high class tart apparently being no bar to this suggestion. Quaintly, the Duke insisted upon the family connection coming from his Mother's family. Princess Margaret invited herself to participate and the historiography chronicles much evidence of reported royal conversations to suggest that all the major female members of the House of Windsor, from the Queen Mother down, can be counted among the audience.

The world of Ambridge and the Monarchy are closer than might seem at first glance. Whitburn says, in pointing to The Archers ongoing appeal: 'There is something therapeutic in its ongoingness, in its ability to renew itself after damage, to affirm after denial. (The Archers, p.144) Whitburn might just as well be speaking about the Monarchy, who peddle another form of Appollonian/Dionysian myth and whose members are often playing a role, presenting an image and acting out a part. The reality behind the role may be quite different. The public join in making theatre around royalty too and are currently reported, by some, to hold more power than the Church in deciding the outcome of Charles and Camilla's love affair.

Might the Royals also be surfing the net and lurking among the undeclared participants of The Archers newsgroup. The Palace tells us the Queen is enjoying this new technology. Perhaps along with the 'LSWs' (Lurking Script Writers) there is the occasional 'HLM' (Her Lurking Majesty)? Invisible theatre of quite another kind; so invisible it's impossible to know who is participating. Given the sensitivity of the Monarchy to political neutrality it must be assumed that The Archers is deceptive enough even to deceive those whose antenna to political undertones might be particularly sensitive.

Despite the notorious caution of the advisors to the Royal Household, The Archers has subverted protocol and drawn royalty into political issues. Equity, an old adversary of Baseley, had made some difficulties when members of the public were used at a church service, recorded at the time of Doris Archer's demise. The story reached the national press. When HRH Princess Margaret appeared on the programme, this was another political hot potato, as the BBC's agreement with Equity only permitted 'non-professional actor[s] [to be] used, if no suitable professional actor could be found to take the part?' (The Archers: The True Story, p.192) It seems Equity were arguing for a virtual reality to take precedence over actual reality and would have preferred the BBC to use Rory Bremner, or some other impressionist, to play HRH! The irony that royalty are consummate actors, who play a part every time they perform an official engagement, escaped Equity's notice.

Other Royal connections are more subtle but perhaps more political. Conveniently, the roguish Eddie Grundy is taken to the alter by the ever tolerant Clarrie at much the same time that the Prince of Wales marries Diana Spencer in 1981. The juxta positioning of the two weddings is particularly ingenious. The writers went on to have the Grundy's name their first born William! Social dissimilarity between these two couples could hardly be greater. However, the progress of their marriages shared rather more than perhaps the writers could have anticipated. Eddie's commitment to Clarrie was uncertain and not long after they were married there were suggestions that a previous relationship had been rekindled. Some contrasts between the royal couple and the commoner couple striving to make their marriage work may have been intended but what emerged were similarities that could not have been anticipated. And just as with the Wales' marriage, public sympathy was largely for Clarrie, the poor benighted wife.

It is the particular character of this programme that it attracts a largely middle-class audience who might 'typically [be] a Guardian-reading social worker in North London' says Smethurst, quoting from a Guardian article written by their own Robin Thurber. Whether this is statistically supportable, is no more important than the rest of the fact and fiction engendered about this drama. What is significant is that we find the creative team using this information to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction. When an advertisement to visit the wildlife park at Grey Gables was mentioned in the programme, Guardian readers found the advertisement in their paper the following day, as claimed in the broadcast.

Everyone involved with The Archers is willing to play with reality. According to Smethurst, when Phil and Jill Archer's daughter, Shula, married, the Archers office sent a wedding invitation and receive a formal apology from the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, properly address to Mr and Mrs Philip Archer, in Ambridge. Also received was a reply from the Soviet Ambassador's secretary, regretting that His Excellency and Madam Popova would be away on holiday at the time. Those who mock the possibility of the Soviet Ambassador knowing about The Archers and understanding the nature of the invitation, should bear in mind that the BBC have collaborated on creating Archers clones in Poland and Afghanistan, appropriately adjusted to local issues. Replication, whilst not unique, is another element in the postmodern framework that underpins The Archers position in broadcasting.

The coy deceptiveness of The Archers allows the establishment to give it its seal of approval and yet beneath the surface there is always something else happening that goes by unnoticed, in the collective consciousness of those whose aim is to support the notion of traditional English life and Protestant ethics.

For a long time it seems the BBC were unwilling to indulge their audience by maintaining Godfrey Baseley's deception that The Archers was a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Is this because the BBC were somewhat frightened by Baseley's creation and anxious about the power of the actors, if they were given too much freedom to allow their characters to penetrate the studio walls and appear in the real world. In the 'libertarian days of the late Fifties, . . . commercial products [were] being joyously and profitably linked to Archers names' [but the BBC created a] 'rule that Archers characters cannot promote commercial products - Norman Painting can open a supermarket, but Phil Archer cannot. (The Archers: The True Story p.250) Now the characters headline publicity for the programme as the BBC colludes with the audience's desire to experience virtual reality, as for example in the BBC Radio 4 'Roots to Radio' where both the name of the actor and the character is used together to advertise the show.

The way the cast uses the desire of their audience to believe in the reality of the fiction can vary. For example Carole Boyd (Lynda Snell) can slip in and out of character within a single sentence whilst Jack May presents Nelson Gabriel in the third person, as someone he has known for a considerable time. Even though Carole Boyd may suddenly appear to be Lynda, it is possible for the audience to develop a twin perspective, because Carole Boyd will not look quite as the Lynda Snell the listener has created. She can change into Lynda aurally but can be experienced as doing no more than mimicking or parodying her. Alternatively, the audience is confronted by the notion of two Lynda Snells; the one they have played a part in determining and the other, the one that faces them, who is also Lynda and yet, at the same time, is very clearly the same person as Carole Boyd. It is in the opportunities for multiplying the images conveyed to the psyche of individual audience members, that The Archers offers another, different form of theatre, to that broadcast in Radio 4. This theatre is witnessed only by those members of Radio 4s audience that contribute by attending these gatherings and occasional road shows, up and down the country. Even more than in the confined space of the theatre, there are opportunities for the audience to multiply their different experiences. If an actor talks about their character in the third person, the illusion that this person does exist somewhere, is all the more convincing on radio, as there is no continual constant visual reminder of their oneness. The character remains somewhat elusive to the audience. Television is quite different. A different hairstyle, a different voice, different clothes, works to remind the audience that the character is a fiction created by the actor but the visual evidence is a strong reminder that the actor and character are the same person.

Radio actors use their voices more than television actors and as a result the disparity between how a character sounds on radio and how the voice of the actor sounds in interview may be considerable. A contributor to the Archers Internet Newsgroup was led to comment that Felicity Finch, (Ruth Archer) displayed very little of Ruth's Newcastle accent when interviewed: 'Only very occasionally did the North-east accent come through. . . for the majority of the interview her accent was very Home Counties.' (Appendix 15) The voice, being somewhat less vulnerable to the ageing process than physical appearance, means a risk of disparity arising between what is presented as the character's age and the age of the actor playing the character. Again the audience must be willing to transfer their sense of reality and bridge the visual gap that can sometimes occur. This taking of a character so much into the individual audience's daily life, so as to merge one with the other, is not unique to The Archers. It is undoubtedly true of any long-running drama in the soap opera genre but it is again because it is done on the radio that it brings a particular perspective.

Because soap-opera is centred on day to day life and produced under demanding recording schedules, it is clearly preferable for an actor to require as little make-up time as possible. As a result, the television audience is offered a physical picture of the actor that is not unrecognisable as the character. A complete change of voice is more easily achieved by some gifted radio actors and it is perhaps not surprising that a listener feels startled into commenting.

In the Archers Internet newsgroup the idea of reinforcing the fiction as fact has been reversed. Contributors reorder fact and fiction by suggesting that a particular character may have a secret life as an actor, or that actor and character are separate people closely linked through friendship. For example, where a lawyer shares the same name (Usha Gupta) as the Ambridge resident and lawyer of this name, they are written about as if they are the same person (Appendix 16). Sometimes listeners reverse reality completely, suggesting that the character is an actor who works under another name, as when a contributor wrote: '. . . . the gorgeous Lynda, using her stage name Carole Boyd, played "Irate Woman". . . Her stage experience in Ambridge showed throughout. . .' (Appendix 17)

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Through the Internet, I created an innovative way of making theatre. This involved making contributions to the Internet styled as if I held the character of Lynda Snell and the person of Carole Boyd to be different, yet real, people. This was followed by an attempt to fuse with the Lynda's character (this was helped by our sharing of Christian names with different spellings), by deliberately misunderstanding who was being addressed and by adopting a persona of someone who greatly admired a character that is one of the most irritating in the village. To my astonishment I discovered that a number people were willing to play along with me and to encourage me to develop the insensitive and self-deceived nature of the 'real' Lynda. Not only were the Internet fans willing to do this, but I discovered that Carole Boyd was also willing to participate in this disordered reality.

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The idea was that Lynda Snell frustrates me by maintaining an elusive quality to our relationship; she disappears just as I am about to speak to her, leaving me with Carole Boyd and writes to me only through her friend Carole, claiming she is too busy to deal with her own post. This idea took off in the minds of so many of the Internet contributors that when they decided to hold a barbecue I was able to attend as both myself and in the persona of the Chief Executive of the Lynda Snell Society and to have present both Carole Boyd and Lynda Snell! The fiction has become so real that Carole Boyd has decided to give the Chief Executive of the Lynda Snell Society, an acknowledgement in Lynda's book. Rex Belcher, of Oxford, has taken the fiction on to the Web and created a Lynda Snell web page. Some evidence for all this can be found in Appendix 18.

The Internet creates another link between the audience and what UMRA terms Lurking Script Writers. In time, the group created the notion of a sub-plot and began to claim they heard secret messages passed through the script to UMRA. One example was when the newsgroup recalled a story about Nelson Gabriel having black satin sheets at a time when this was considered avant garde. A few weeks later there was a line about 'threadbare black satin sheets' that some contributors were convinced was an oblique acknowledgement.

There were other, less convincing clues picked up, but when, one Peter Kerry Butler, wrote to the group and said that without doubt, for him The Archers was real life, because he was one of the scriptwriters, his post was treated with suspicion and virtually ignored! Whether the suggestions made on the net ever do inspire the writers and how many of them actually read them, remains uncertain but the senior producer, Keri Davies, admits to reading it from time to time and has written to the group. Again, little response arises from this and only marginally more is given to Hedli Niklaus the Managing Director of the official fan club who has also written inviting replies. It seems as if this might be too much reality and that what this section of the audience prefers is its own form of virtual reality. Perhaps it is still too soon for the audience to allow the space between protagonist and spectator to be bridged in this way.

Boal intends his South American audience to participate and it seems to go unnoticed that this sometimes happens in the UK concealed in the jolly and traditional image of English country life depicted in The Archers. This is rather more subversive than Boal's theatre that he claims has defined itself in opposition to the bourgeoisie, the professionals, the military, the ruling apparatuses and their texts. The national press seem more than willing to join in creating a theatre of the invisible that has developed virtually spontaneously over time. In November 1996, for example, the Telegraph's food critic, Paddy Burt, wrote a review of the imaginary Grey Gables and described her visit, overnight stay, conversations with the staff and her opinion of the restaurant. (Appendix 19) There appears to be as much theatre and fiction surrounding the programme, as that which appears in it and many contradictory views about the purpose of what is presented. It appeals to the intellectual left and the traditional Tory right, as both have their desires, hopes, prejudices and values reinforced. The first can perceive oppression by the large landowners towards the tenant farmers. Whilst the one makes free with the EC subsidies that their large enterprises can attract, the other possess neither the material resources, nor the ability to cleverly manipulate the system, in what is a technically legal way but is nonetheless an abuse of the system for profit:

The Archers has established a special relationship with its audience because from its inception it loosed the boundaries between fact and fiction. Its production methods and broadcast patterns force it to disrupt time and include a range of technology to convey atmosphere and effect. It is not the narrative, which always bears a transient quality, that keeps the audience, but the sense of the place itself. Ambridge peddles a myth that is postmodern in nature and is retrospectively postmodern in performance. The programme creates its own myths and the many truths that are expressed about unrecorded events and facts in Ambridge, work to reinforce the truths, that hide behind the programme and behind the desire of the audience to believe in a cast and production that is a reflection of Ambridge. Actors merge into characters and as many have played more than one character, and some characters have been played by several different actors, there is a further sense of fusion.

This image of fusion attaches the internal world of the imagination and myth, to the external world of factual experience and political argument. This is splendidly demonstrated in the following observation from Archers writer, Peter Kerry and sent to me by e-mail. I think it sums up the phenomena that is The Archers and points towards an answer to his own question to UMRA: Is The Archers a soap opera?

Ambridge is real, in terms of an idea and is as near to virtual reality as Baudrillard's Gulf War that did not happen is, to those who recognise that the Gulf War we saw on our television was not reality. There are wars and there are English villages but what most of us perceive is only an idea of both, that is sufficiently connected to our desire for idealised reality, to allow one to be confused as the other. We all know The Archers is not real life, but it is virtually real. It places mirror upon mirror, upon mirror and the result is one of endless repetition and reflection, where the original is lost among its own myths and its centre is neither the characters nor the narrative, but the invisible stage that exists in the mind of its audience. It is because it is done on radio that enables it to fuse to the imagination of its audience, that is in turn linked the Arcadian myth that it retells. Its ability to regenerate itself through time, whilst maintaining the Appollonian stillness within the Dionysian cycle, locates it into the postmodern arena and its appeal to an audience with wide ranging political values, is indicative of a decentred whole. Both in the minds of the audience and in the playing with the idea of Ambridge in the external world, the audience are encouraged to make theatre and sometimes to take up the issues that resonate with their own reality and experiences.

For all the reasons explored and pointed up here it is clear that to categorise The Archers as soap-opera is to constrain it into a genre that is inappropriate. It does, indeed, contain many of these motifs but it is more than that and from its origins demonstrates its decentred approach. Whilst the public may choose to mark it a radio soap, there can be no doubt that as an understanding and awareness of postmodern drama is clarified and distilled, The Archers will be recognised as retrospectively postmodern.

Return to start of document. Author's e-mail address: linda at Linda Tame, 1997