I listened to the Archers back in the fifties, hearing the familiar signature tune as I lay in my bed as a very little girl, waiting for sleep. And then, when I was old enough to understand it all, I listened properly but intermittently. Sometimes I would absent myself for years, coming back, catching up, then leaving it again. Regretting the loss of Walter and then Nelson Gabriel. I loved Nelson. And I was very sad about Nigel but found myself giggling at the jokes too. Don't jump off the roof, Nige...
The Archers saw me through marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, various troubles with parental sickness and death - and lots and lots of my own writing. As a fairly sickly child, I had listened to plenty of radio drama and in my twenties, I began to write it professionally too. I had some thirty years of writing for BBC radio, more than one hundred hours of original plays, series, dramatisations. Oddly, I never wanted to write for the Archers. I was asked once, but I said a polite no. I knew I wouldn't enjoy having to stick to other people's constraints about overall plot and character development.
One of my early radio plays, O Flower of Scotland, was about rape - a rarely tackled theme back then. It won a major award. I think it worked because it was about the kind of assault that is not carried out by a stranger, but by somebody known to the victim and it didn't shrink from examining the horror of it, not least in the after effects.
When the radio work stopped - quite suddenly, as careers at the BBC are apt to do for no very obvious reason - I turned my attention with continuing success to novels, short stories, non fiction and some stage plays as well. I still run occasional workshops on writing drama, still know how to write - and how not to write - issue based drama in particular. My stage play Wormwood, written for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was all about the Chernobyl disaster and you don't get much more issue based than that.
Which is why I've been following recent events in The Archers - and the vast numbers of passionate and occasionally heated comments about what has undoubtedly become the 'Rob and Helen Show' - with interest. Listeners are pretty much divided. Some people, especially people who are all too aware of the reality of abuse, are praising it for its authenticity. 'It really happens like that. In fact it's much worse. It goes on for years,' they say. A significant number of people on the other hand assert that they have stopped listening. I switched off a little while ago but I dipped back in again a few times out of sheer curiosity, when a denouement threatened, only to switch off again more permanently. And now, I'm examining my own motives.
The relief was immense and that surprised me. The thought of not having to listen to it brings a little extra frisson of pleasure to my day. I didn't expect that, but it's true. Nobody, incidentally, should ever assume that people switch off a particularly distressing programme because they don't want anything to disturb the even tenor of their days. Life isn't like that. Radio, as I was always told back in the olden days, when working producers had the time to teach aspiring writers their craft, is incredibly immediate and consequently can be very shocking. Much more so than television. It happens right inside your head. Everyone has his or her own stresses and struggles, worries, challenges, miseries. So although we can and do care for others, sometimes we also have to be realistic about looking after ourselves and those close to us and the need to avoid piling on extra sadness.
What else? Well, I'm sorry to say that anyone who believes that producers only plan these kind of storylines from the purest possible motives knows very little about the ways in which media corporations function. It might be true to say that those at the top live or perish by audience response and happy endings do not equate to increased listener numbers. That's why there's added jeopardy. Trams fall off viaducts, cars are driven into canals and landowners slide off roofs. They aren't doing this just to drive home a health and safety message. Listening figures matter. Coverage matters. Publicity matters. The fact that the Archers has been covered across so many different media - I'm blogging about it now and in a small way, feeding into the craze - is so much jam for those in charge.
But I still have a whole heap of reservations.
One of the first things you tell aspiring writers, as an experienced playwright is that 'It really happens like this' is no excuse for poor storytelling or cynical manipulation of a set of pre-existing characters. It seems to me that the Rob and Helen story has thrown the balance of the whole programme out of kilter. 'It really happens like this' (and of course it does! It happens like this and like that and it goes on for longer, it goes on for years and people are scarred for life and sometimes they die) is paramount when we're talking about the accuracy or otherwise of a factual documentary.
But this isn't a documentary. And it worries me that people seem to have lost the ability or even the desire to distinguish between drama and documentary. It used to be that listeners would send wreaths when a much loved character in a soap died. We snigger at them, but at least that was down to naivety. Now there's a certain indignation if a playwright or novelist doesn't always adhere to some strict representation of the truth as the listener perceives it.
Which is more unreasonable? To assume the truth of fiction or to assume that fiction must always reflect your own personal truth?
The Archers is a drama and a well loved one. Made up truth if you like. So it must be 'true' but it must also be shaped and - you know - dramatised. To get to the truth of a situation or an issue, to involve people, to enlighten them, you have to do it sensitively and by that, I don't mean prudishly avoiding the issue. I mean that you must be aware of when you are dealing with complex and long established characters, when you are shaping reality to enlighten, inform, engage - and, by contrast, you must know when you are cynically turning the screw.
The structure of recent episodes seems all wrong to me. You involve listeners or viewers in a continuing drama by putting them on a switchback and skilfully orchestrating the issues in terms of the characters as we know them, rather than taking them on a long slow slide into hell - however 'realistic' that may be. The Archers could have done this by - for example - shifting the focus to Helen's parents, Pat and Tony, from time to time, as they gradually became aware of what was going on but were still powerless to stop it. There are plenty of people in Ambridge who, on the evidence of past storylines, are all too aware of 'what Rob is really like'. Rather than a wholesale - and faintly ridiculous, let's face it - isolation of Helen by giving everyone else a sort of collective amnesia or mass delusion (Rob's a demon, oh wait, what a nice man he is!) and rather than the introduction of Cruella in the shape of Rob's mum, the writers could have been allowed to explore those tensions. I'd lay bets some of them wanted to. Helen might have made several attempts to leave, resulting in an escalation of her husband's violence. It would have been infinitely more dramatic and credible than the current 'Free The Ambridge One' scenario. It would also have been 'true' to a great many incarnations of domestic abuse.
For every parent who has no idea what is going on with their beloved child, there will be another who knows exactly what is going on and is desperate but unable to do something about it. And if you really want to advise and instruct people as well as entertaining them, then you tackle that much more low key but equally challenging state of affairs by dramatising it and you take your listeners with you on that journey, rather than force them to shout 'you deluded moron' at the radio throughout more than one episode.
Here's a recent example, from television. A single brilliantly written and acted couple of scenes in Happy Valley told me more about the reality of coping with alcoholism in a loved one than any number of documentaries on the same topic. But don't you just get the feeling that if this had been the Archers, right now, the much loved sister who had fallen off the wagon would have been abandoned by Catherine and been found dead in a ditch the next morning instead of sitting with a sore head and a cup of tea? That too would have been 'true to life' but it would have evaded all kinds of sensitive and subtle issues that Sally Wainwright managed to explore in fairly short scenes that have - interestingly enough - stayed with me ever since.
If the BBC wanted to run a piece of continuing, issue based, real time drama about domestic abuse - and it might have been a worthy project - then that's what they should have done. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Instead, we have an impossibly long drawn out melodrama imposed on characters we have known and lived with for years, changing them beyond all recognition. My willing suspension of disbelief was challenged weeks ago and is now gone beyond recall which is another reason why I've switched off. There's a way of tackling these things, of bringing in new listeners without alienating the old, of stitching them into the ongoing fabric of the drama that would continue to move people and involve them and might stand a chance of doing some good as well.
But I don't believe this is it.
Perhaps, too, it's as simple as recognising that a scant quarter of an hour at a time is much too short for such an exploration of evil, for such grim intensity night after night, day after day. The 'lighthearted' scenes in between seem forced and stupid by comparison - which is because they are. But pity the poor writers, because they don't stand a chance. Ruth, laughing for fifteen seconds over the profoundly unfunny stock cube in the shower is just one example. For me, the programme is bursting out of its format in no good way and it will be a brave and skilful producer who manages to get it back on track. But who knows, having jettisoned a heap of listeners, perhaps the new fans will stay. Which may have been what they intended all along.
All the same, they need to beware of what one of my old and very talented producers used to call the 'shit click' effect. It's when your listener says 'shit' and switches off. That's what I did. It'll be a long time till I go back.