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

13 comments:

JuliaM said...

"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."

They'd do for the show itself, if they thought they could get away without a public outcry. Perhaps this is merely the first of a thousand cuts..?

Turing word: oupsi How apt!

Woman on a Raft said...

From the looks of the comments on the fan boards, they may not need 1000 cuts.

Whitburn has darn near cut off its head in a single slash because the Archers audience wanted a celebration, not a disaster. They also aren't interested in a long-running feud which cranks out tedious hostilities.

Killing the show might be the plan, but that's an uncommonly silly one at a time when the BBC needs all the friends it can get.

Albert said...

Stopped listening to the Archers years ago,it's always been a vehicle to get some goverment garbage out to the middle classes,just like they use Coronation Street and that other piece of southern garbage Albert Square only difference is they are both used to get garbage out to the chav and the lower middle classes,watch or listen same garbage.

Woman on a Raft said...

Pretty much, Albert.

It's a pity because only radio allows a drama to be written in close to real-time. The TV rubbish has to be fixed much further in advance.

lilith said...

What? Nigel is DEAD?

Woman on a Raft said...

Yes, Lilith. I suspect the BBC may die with him as it doesn't seem to have understood he was plumbed-in to their loyalty stream.

Vanessa Whitburn may have achieved what Woss could not and finally put the tin lid on it.

They just don't know they are dead yet.

David Vance said...

Just wait until an Imam moves in and the call to prayer echoes 'cross Ambridge!

Woman on a Raft said...

Hello Mr Vance

I don't understand the following quote. Perhaps you can throw light on what Gillian Reynolds means as she usually knows what she is talking about:

If threats to originate The Archers on what is now Radio 7 (but will soon be relaunched as 4-Xtra) prove true, Radio 4 will have been forced to cut off its nose to spite its face. In radio, as in retail, it doesn’t pay to upset regular customers.

Wiki sez:
"On 2 March 2010 the BBC's management announced a proposal to substantially change the station [the digital Radio 7], which currently repeats programmes drawn from the BBC Sound Archive, so that it would also provide content based on current Radio 4 shows. The station would then be renamed "Radio 4 Extra". On 3 June 2010 the BBC Trust opened a public consultation on the proposal to change the station."

lilith said...

I think Gillian means that they want to start The Archers all over again from the beginning, and then the listeners will be forced to perform rhinoplasty on Stephen Fry.

Dick the Prick said...

On usual job applications there's that bit for miscelleneous duties; does the BBC's have 'must be a complete numbnuts'? I'm quite a lazy person at heart so to get the job of running one of the most popular, loyal, undemanding yet broad programmes would seem like an invitation to toss it off and give the people what they want. Hmm...whaddo i know i guess? Ejeets.


WV: mueinga - seeing Stephen Fry without rhiniplasty?

Woman on a Raft said...

Thanks for that, Lilith, although I'm danged if I can see any advantage to the BBC in it.

Me too, Dick. The Archers has always had more in common with Cold Comfort Farm than Jude the Obscure in its soul.

I notice that today the BBC has been forced to climb-down on its EastEnders baby-swap storyline.

They were warned that even Albert Square wouldn't go for that one. As one watcher put it "I know Kat is supposed to be thick, but surely she'd know her own baby".

Scrobs... said...

Don't worry Mrs Rafters, it's all a dream!

Ooops, there's a knock on the door...

"Oh, Hi Grace...!"

Woman on a Raft said...

It's all bubbling along on a plot line of its own, Scrobs.

Nobody has seen Vanessa Whitburn but she has pushed the writers out on stage with a pointy stick to 'explain' themselves. Sending the writers in to the arena is a contemptible act by the management because the death of Pargetter was never the writers' decision to make. It was Whitburn's and she must stand or fall by it.

The Archers audience isn't so suspended as to believe the characters are real (as in Coronation Street) but they have been playing a game for decades whereby they pretend they are.

It's a huge drama workshop in which the audience participates in the production, and now the paid leaders have broken several rules of the club and the members are rebelling because they just don't want to hear that story. As Alice Cooper sang:

"Waiting for this audience
Who's coming here to dream"

Whitburn has forced them to wake up, but that is not what they came for.

The story continues....