Tuesday, 4 January 2011
The destruction of Ambridge
There are several places I would cheerfully see blown to kingdom come and they are Albert Square, Weatherfield, Emmerdale, and now the village of Ambridge. Leaving aside the first three - because I don't watch their pox-souled inhabitants tear lumps of each other and pretend they in any way reflect the state of the nation or amount to drama - I was an occasional visitor to Ambridge.
Ambridge had the greatest capacity to reflect real-life events in fictional characters to see how things would play out in real-time, using radio in a way that TV cannot match. Like news, satire, magazines and blogs, Ambridge could anticipate events and react to them, sometimes changing the scripts at short notice if the show was overtaken by reality.
Often criticised - rightly - for crude pro-Labour politicking, the series nevertheless managed to examine serious issues such as what happens when tenant farmers go in to debt, how do conservative congregations feel about lady vicars, coping with dementia, planning applications and other personal things such as teenagers taking up with dopey boyfriends or rivalries over pie-making.
They had to use the dramatic convention that people kept talking to each other long after real-world people would have said "That's it, I'm never speaking to you again" and somebody would probably have strangled Linda Snell by now, but you have to give radio dramatists a break; if they don't have people talking they haven't got a show at all.
When long-time inhabitant Phil Archer died, it was because his actor, Norman Painting, died. Many people felt that they were listening to the end of an era in the fictional funeral because his voice had been a welcome presence in their lives. Painting was lucky; perhaps because he was no political threat, he was allowed to live out his radio life as Phil Archer to the conclusion which many people reach where they die of natural causes after a long, blameless life and are loved by their friends and family. It does happen.
Inconveniently for Vanessa Whitburn, the producer, Painting died in late 2009 and so Phil Archer had to depart four months later in February 2010. Ideally, he should have gone in to deep-freeze and been given a ceremonial cremation on Lakey Hill for the 60th anniversary, and hang the rules about open-air incineration. It would have been a controversial story line because it involves conspiratorial villagers, a conflict of laws and opinion, and a possible prosecution of Jill Archer. The cremation could have been disguised as a New Year's bonfire party with the vicar dithering over whether this was or was not in accordance with Phil's Christian beliefs. A defiant Jill could have been arrested and carted off to Borchester nick, with an unaware-Usha suddenly finding herself defending both Jill and her own husband. "We didn't tell you, Usha, because we didn't want to compromise you. This way, you genuinely had no idea Phil was on the pyre".
Instead, the talentless Vanessa Whitburn decided to bump-off Nigel Pargetter merely by pushing him off the roof. The monumental stupidity of slaughtering one of the handful of people in Ambridge who aren't gargoyles, was laced with malice. He had to die because he was old guard conservative despite his hippie ways, because he was a portrait of a certain kind of Englishman, and it had to be in a pointless way, nothing heroic about it, because in Ambridge it is forbidden to say anything good about a gent. All conservative viewpoints are to be put in the mouths of the most dented and discredited characters, such as Shula and Brian Aldridge.
The audience are not happy. They go to Ambridge to hear Nigel, not to bury him. The loss of yet another male character, especially a fundamentally decent one, is another reason to stay away as Ambridge gradually turns in to Tenko. Besides, we are on the brink of months of real-life misery. Fictional grief is surplus to requirements; there's plenty of real grief to go round.
It isn't the first time Whitburn has fouled-up. The 2006 Ruth Archer extra-marital affair was so hopelessly out of character and such an unwelcome development that the audience switched off. It was even lampooned by the late Humphrey Littleton on "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" as the traditional way of celebrating the 15,000th edition. The writers hastily patched up the episode and put it in the Never Mention This Again box. There are some things the audience is not prepared to hear, even if you managed to write it convincingly.
But then, from the BBC's point of view the killing of Nigel Pargetter it isn't a foul-up; it's what they most enjoy - the symbolic killing of England.
Update: audience reaction