You may never have heard of them, but believe me when I say, The Archers are a British institution. Turn on your radio anytime from the 1950s onwards and "that music" would come on; "'Dum tee tiddly dum tee dum tee dum tee ...'". Yet this tale of ‘Country folk’ is all in the imagination, including the geography. There is no Ambridge, no Borsetshire, no Woolpack pub etc. They simply don’t exist. It is all form the imagination of the writers, but they have been around for so long. One of the characters, Jill Archer, first appeared in the programme when I was a girl, and she is still going strong. Recently I saw the actress who plays her, Patricia Greene, being interviewed on television. All these years I had never even seen a picture, so she wasn’t at all as I had imagined her, and then she began to speak, and there she was: that gentle, slightly hesitant, caring voice I’d been hearing most of my life.
The programme was designed to give farmers advice in a gentle way - not preachy. So every so often there is advice about cattle keeping, or we are reminded that it is time to get the winter wheat sown or to dip sheep. They climb Lakey Hill and we get word pictures of the countryside at different times of the year – from the first spring grass with gambolling lambs, through to the snow laden, bare branches of winter.
We come to care about the characters: We share Kenton’s frustration with his family, or Ruth’s love for her mum. They have all the normal things – new babies, love affairs, romance, along with accidents, illness and death. It is like having a well-loved, extended family.
Yet some people have never tuned in, and they know nothing about it. I firmly believe they miss out.
If you have an extended family you need to tune in to them. You need to know their news, and you need to let them know you care, just as the characters in the Archers do.
You probably have soap operas in your country too. (They are called soap operas because when they began in America they were sponsored by soap powder companies.) Where are yours based – in the country or town, are the characters upper class people or do they portray the working class?
When I think back over the years, we’ve had soap operas based on life in a police station, one based around a pub and its customers, one in a street and its inhabitants, several showing life on a hospital ward or in the casualty department, even one about a group of young people in Essex. There is one based on doctors in a Yorkshire health centre, its staff and their extended families. There are shorter series too, based upon a church and its vicar, or the staff at the BBC.
Any of these situations can be interesting. They can be a bit over dramatic, as the writers find new ways to cut out certain characters or to introduce new ones: How many major fires have you had in your area? Not as many as Coronation Street, I bet. But often they deal with issues that we have to deal with every day. A young person choosing to go away to university, a grandmother with dementia, falling in love with the wrong person, and simply ending up with a very complicated life. You think of any situation you have had to face in your life, and I guarantee some writer has put it into a story.
The Archers may not be your style, but it does contain plenty of typical conversation, and because it is on the radio you are pretty much guaranteed access via digital radio. It will definitely help your listening skills, you can concentrate without being distracted by visuals, and only one person speaks at a time. Give it a listen on BBC Radio 4. It even has a popular podcast created by fans, aptly named dumteedum.com.