Friday 14 January 2011
Over at the Archers the words continue to fly over the execution of Nigel Pargetter. Vanessa Whitburn, late of Brookside, claims that the wider audience loved it. She believes she is a far-sighted dramatist bringing cutting-edge realism to an old format.
The commentariat - whom Whitburn believes are unrepresentative of the five million audience as a whole - say they aren't listening and don't want that story line. If they wanted realistic drama, they'd open a book or go to the theatre or perhaps pick a DVD. They are a literate audience, not dependent on Whitburn for their high culture. Also, they've got enough trouble with real grief and 'ishoos' and don't need to feed vampirishly off fictional grief, thank you very much.
They regard Whitburn to be much less technically adept as a dramatist than she thinks herself. They don't believe a farmer who has been stuck in a ditch and nearly died, had a tree he was felling fall on a farm worker killing him, and had his cousin squashed by a tractor, would go up on an icy roof in the middle of the night for a poxy banner. There is another Archer who is stupid enough to do it, but he's bone idle and would have left the banner up there until it was current again. They also plain don't like her, regarding anyone who dismisses an actor by phone after almost thirty years collaboration as demonstrating supremely bad manners and encapsulating everything which is wrong with the Archers, the BBC and indeed, the country.
Whitburn was acting within the law; the Archers actors are not on employee contracts but are freelancers and the recording schedule jigs around their other paying work. Still, it was both callous and cowardly, a personal failing, to do that over the phone when the charming Graham Seed deserved at the very least a visit. As many listeners expect bad news about their own jobs in the coming months, they identified with a man pleading for his character to be spared.
Like the failure of the BBC to realize quickly enough why the Jonathan Ross episode was such a danger to them, Whitburn continues to think this was Seed's fault for not being in her office when she wanted to sack him. How dare the audience complain, who do they think they are, the people who pay her wages? In Whitburn's Ambridge, Seed is only a bloke so he doesn't matter and he hasn't got any special cards such as being black or gay or lefty. He should think himself lucky he got a phone call; he could have found out when he opened the script.
The Archers is Middle England's 15-minute coffee-time treat during the day or perhaps their Sunday soak instead of going to church. They are part of the congregation of Ambridge which was extended by William Smethurst when he edited the show from 1978-1991. It is a very broad congregation indeed which stretches from people who put up wallpaper border strips half-way down the wall in imitation of aristocratic dado rails, to people who inherit good furniture.
Smethurst used his background as a journalist to introduce a feeling of 'all human life is here' in to the story lines, although in fact they were there from the start. Drastic measures had been taken to keep the show on air; the BBC had tried to discontinue it in 1972 in an early showing of spite towards the middle-class audience which had dwindled, despite a 20 year relationship with the village created by Godfrey Baseley in 1950.
Smethurst credited the radio boss Jock Gallagher with defiance at the time, a preparedness to do what would keep the show on the road, although he didn't always think much of the story lines which emerged. He joined as a script writer in 1974 and took over the editor/producer's chair in 1978.
Yes, Smethurst spiced-up but the dish but it was still a recognizable product of English literature in a rural setting. The Aga Saga is a regular best-seller, the product for people who would like a country house at Burnham Market but manage with booking a short break in a holiday cottage or, at minimum, lavender bath salts and a face-pack during the omnibus edition, looking forward to a Sunday lunch done in their new Conran chicken-brick. It's traditional, darling. He positioned it for Middle England and proved there was a regular mass audience for an everyday story of country folk, refining and re-tuning the 1950 classic recipe for the 1980s listener, astutely trading on its own nostalgia.
Smethurst has also been credited with injecting humour in to the story, aligning it with comedies of modern manners.
The approach was typified in Smethurst's 1981 book "Ambridge, An English Village Through The Ages". It was a history as written by local people and a history lecturer - all named characters in the show - and contains an early reference to the Reverend A.S. Pargetter who collected and listed the Borsetshire dialect in the 1850s. His son, Edmund Pargetter, extended the volume in to the better known Borsetshire Dialect for publication by the English Dialect Society in 1869.
"Undoubtedly the most famous work on dialect lexis is Joseph Wright's six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) which remains an essential text for all students of the subject. This pioneering work drew on the collections of the English Dialect Society, set up to gather its data and disbanded in 1896 when it saw its task to having been completed. Decades before Joseph Wright, the English gentleman-scholar Alexander Ellis began to investigate regional pronunciation, no mean feat prior to the invention of the International Phonetic Alphabet and sound recording." Says Clive Upton, professor of modern English language, University of Leeds, substantiating that Smethurst was spot-on with his research, making the fictional Pargetters do what the real Alexander Ellis did.
There are caches of the publications of the English Dialect Society in university libraries. I like to think that at least one of them really is by a Pargetter. Smethurst played a perfect hand of fakes which the English adore, smuggling real history in to fictional accounts.
In 1984 the copy of "Ambridge" which I have here, was presented to Martin Roberts, a pupil at Sandown High School on the Isle of Wight, for winning the Thomas Cup for Physics and Maths. There is no way to know for sure - unless Martin Roberts is out there and able to confirm this - but it is a strange book to give to a teenager unless he was a fan of The Archers and was already a conspirator.
The book is beautifully edited, pitch-perfect for a middlin' audience with a sweet-tooth for accessible history. It presages the current popular history shows such as The Edwardian Farm in collecting the reminisences of Doris and Dan Archer, formalizing the back-story of the village.
In a dizzy display of references, even the backstory has a backstory. The Visit Worcester site milks the connections for all it is worth, as it contains some of the locations Godfrey Baseley had in mind when he wrote the original. Go to the Bull at Inkberrow and complete the circle by looking at Archers memorabilia.
Smethurst kept up the fun with the Archers Official Companion, followed by a cookery book, and then Dan Archer's own memoir. Other spin-off publications fostered audience affection and involvement which helped protect the BBC when serious questions were raised over the BBC's future in the 1980s. Smethurst left the programme in 1991, having been begged to save a TV soap. Vanessa Whitburn took over.
The difference could be summed up as 'pomposity'. Smethurst was not above jazzing up the story, but his game was building a show and hanging on to it, not lecturing the audience. Whitburn was reported by the reputable commentator Gillian Reynolds to have enjoyed working for Smethurst but said "of course the programme was a lot frothier and lighter and less substantial in those days".
Smethurst had a book to sell by 1996 "The Archers: The True Story" and was not impressed by Whitburn's handling of the vehicle. He disapproved of what he called Whitburn's "urbanisation, feminist propaganda and political correctness"
That's the nub of it; Smethurst writes stories you might want to read which build on a tradition of engaging characters and emotions, plausible plotting and properly researched factual backgrounds. Whitburn is writing a story of contemporary issues which claim to be in a rural setting but her agenda is already a period-piece of hectoring social finger-wagging, frozen in the dying days of Spare Rib magazine and Brookside itself, the decline of which Wiki summarizes thus:
"The Gordons were considered miscast and generally unlikeable; furthermore, the abrupt death of Alan in the 2002 siege aftermath, followed shortly after by Debbie dying in a car crash, gave the remaining family a depressive on-screen presence as their children dealt with becoming orphans."
Whitburn's Ratner moment - named for when Gerald Ratner blew up his own company by insulting the intelligence of his customers - came on the Today programme the morning after the 60th Anniversary edition. Two things became startlingly clear; the character was dead, not injured - the cliff hanger had not resolved that - and the real life actor had been prepared to carry on in the role for as long as he was able, so the storyline didn't emerge from him wanting to leave the show. The audience united in rage rather than grief that they had lost the one character they really liked and enjoyed hearing.
Everyone holds their breath for the RAJAR listening numbers, as if hundreds of cogent dramatic analyses from the core audience were not warning enough; this programme has jumped the shark.
Or perhaps it was pushed.