How many tribulations must a soap opera family matriarch face (and resolve with the aplomb of a UN negotiator) before the tears and wailing become tiresome? How many episodes before the conniving local businessman and his machinations for world (or neighbourhood) domination become old? In short — how long can a soap opera hold its viewers interests? A hundred episodes? Five hundred perhaps? A thousand even? On Thursday, November 7, The Archers celebrated its 15,000th edition and gave the term mega-serial a whole new meaning.
When it first aired on BBC Radio in 1950, the show was intended as a tool to pass on agricultural information to farmers in the British Midlands and was produced with input from the Ministry of Agriculture. Set in the fictional village of Ambridge, the show follows the lives of various families (including of course the Archers) and every local scandal worth the twitch of white lace curtains. All peppered with a great deal of talk about farming subsidies and organic vegetables.
So how does a radio show sustain interest for over fifty years? Well apart from subliminal discourses on hybrid seeds The Archers has tackled everything from homosexuality and inter-racial relationships to drug abuse and jam making competitions. Add to that cameo appearances by Dame Judi Dench and designer Zandra Rhodes (why even Princess Margaret dropped in once at the local fashion show) and you have a soap opera that has captivated and divided audiences and critics for over half a century. (Ekta Kapoor please note.)
So would our own serials back home be able to stand such a test of time? Perhaps a better question is, would we want them to? Twenty years from now will we still want to watch Tulsi Virani and her clan grapple with what seems to be the collective misfortunes of the world in their ironically named homestead Shantiniketan? Would we still be interested in the power struggle between a geriatric, wheelchair bound Adi and Abhi from Kolangal? Maybe not. After three hundred episodes or so, it might be fair to say that the average viewer does begin to grow weary of the constant melodrama, tears, plots and sub plots. (Not to mention the impossible task of matching the right Swarovski studded designer bindi to the right vamp). It is here that The Archers has succeeded. Though scandalous love affairs, mysterious deaths and infertility feature in story threads, the show also weaves in mundane everyday stories allowing listeners a reprieve from all the edge-of-the-seat tension a local pig auction can bring with it.
Every day, the faithful tune in as they drive home from work, brew their tea and supervise children's homework. A rather opinionated bunch they are too. This week the debate that raged alongside America's mid-term elections and Madonna’s Malawian offspring was regarding the extra marital peccadilloes of a certain character. Such cornfield canoodling was against her nature irate and loyal fans informed bemused Radio 4 presenters.
My first brush with The Archers was at work. A colleague who I happened to share a cubicle with was a devoted BBC Radio 4 listener. Every morning, he would come in set his bag down, switch on his Mac and head off to make a cup of tea. Once he was settled in his swivel chair, Tetley in hand he would tune in to the station and commence work, occasionally pausing for interesting debates, news updates and of course The Archers. What drew my attention to the show was its cheery signature tune and the delightful broad accents the character's spoke in. The ten thousand plus episodes I had to catch up with though seemed too daunting and I didn't attempt to follow these good farming folk who led far more interesting lives than I (or anyone else I knew for that matter) did.
However the last couple of months have seen me play writer at home and I have discovered nothing helps one forget writer's bloc and conundrums over the appropriate placing of apostrophes like tuning in to The Archers with a cup of tea, feet firmly ensconced in fluffy slippers. (Very British of me if it weren’t for the fact that my chai is always laced heavily with adrak and elaichi.)
As the theme tune faded away at the end of today's episode I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if DD had treated Vayalum Vazhvum in a similar manner? Moustache twirling landlords, romantic trysts behind hay bales and missing cow herds would have no doubt helped the program withstand the onslaught of satellite television and manipulative mother-in-laws.
All the brouhaha over the landmark episode has died down and the villagers of Ambridge are getting on with life and milking cows with that quintessential British stiff upper lip. Here’s to the next 15,000.
(This appeared in the Magazine section of NewIndPress on Sunday. Link here)