The Archers was (were?) born the same year as me, in that annus mirabilis 1950. I've been an avid listener since I was a teenager. In the days of our analogue innocence, woe betide anyone who interrupted those hallowed 15 minutes. Nowadays, the BBC iPlayer has loosened the tight grip the 7pm pips used to have on my daily routine (though I'm old enough to remember when it was 6.45pm - perhaps some readers of my generation can recall when the change was made).
Let's not go in for exaggerated claims. I won't say that all I've ever learned in life has been picked up from The Archers. But as a north London suburbanite brought up behind privet hedges and net curtains, I did learn quite a lot about the countryside. To us townies, it was a foreign country. They did things differently there. That was part of my justification for listening to it, or so I told my mother. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Mrs Dale fan. She was disconsolate when it folded. But I don't know how much medical knowledge she or anyone ever distilled from Dr Dale's surgery or his worrisome wife. By contrast, I used to say to her, The Archers was educational. It was far more than entertainment (we didn't call them soaps in those days). You were informed about the realities of farming and how people interacted with the land. You learned. So it was essential listening. And also, a lot of the time, huge fun.
This marriage of informing and entertaining was always the mission of The Archers. It was originally conceived as a way of getting information across to farmers and smallholders about how to increase productivity after the austerities and food-shortages of the war and post-war rationing. There was regular advice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who had a role in devising the scripts. You didn't just learn about the daily round and common task of the life in the countryside: good husbandry, farm-management, the vicissitudes of seed-time and harvest and the hazards of unseasonal frosts. Nor was it just about Doris Archer's kitchen, jam-making and beef stews. You picked up a lot about rural poverty, employee relationships, estate management, pesticides and livestock movement not to mention the (sometimes overwrought) dynamics of village life. This daily window on an "everyday story of country folk" had its ups and downs. But you felt you were in the company of people who knew what they were talking about when it came to the landscapes of middle England.
But the programme has never been merely quotidian in its concerns. Some of its big stories have focused on events that have been very much in the headlines: organic farming, foot-and-mouth disease, farm tenancies, road building, badger-culling, flooding and GM crops. The Archers were never afraid of being topical, even controversial. Locals expressed their views forcibly on the village green, in the shop, in the Bull, even in church. The cut-and-thrust was part of the point. The programme didn't need to take sides to acquaint a listening public with the joys and sorrows of a green and pleasant land from which many were increasingly distanced in towns and cities.
Which brings me to my point. Why have The Archers studiously avoided getting drawn into the greatest political decision of our generation, the European Union Referendum? Our friends at Felpersham Cathedral (@Felpercathedral) installed an #EUReferendometer to monitor all mentions of the referendum on the programme. (Discursus: I wonder where did they put it - in a transept? the crypt? the triforium? underneath the high altar? Or did the Dean or a minor canon have to wear it under their cassock and surplice like a heart monitor?)
The Cathedral issued a weekly report on referendum talk in the village. There was little to report: just one significant kick, a conversation between Adam and David about the implications of EU membership for farming. (David was for Remain. Adam, surprisingly, said he would be voting Leave - as a gay man, had he forgotten the progress so energetically promoted by the EU in relation to LGBT equality?) Apart from that, not a single conversation about any substantive referendum themes. Not one! The referendometer flatlined for the best part of four whole months. There was just a bland exchange or two about how important it was to vote and how the village hall was given its customary role as polling station, but without getting into any issues ("I know better than to ask you which way you're going to vote", or weasel words to that effect).
When it came to the EU debate, Ambridge was the most silent, undisturbed place in Europe. The Bull was untroubled by any argument. There were no sermons in church, no meetings in the village hall. Peggy didn't fall out over it with the vicar. Debbie runs a farm in Hungary, yet she had nothing to say from the perspective of eastern Europe. Brian and Justin are used to thinking big about farming, but they had more pressing things on their mind than the Common Agricultural Policy. Young farmers Pip and Josh bucked the trend of their generation by not being engaged with it at all let alone coming in as fervent Remainers. Even Susan kept her counsel, a phenomenon unheard-of in all the years she has presided over the village shop. A cloud of EU-unknowing hung over the village. The referendum was strictly off-limits. It was the topic - love it or loathe it - that dare not speak its name except (we are guessing) in dark corners out of reach of the microphone. Out of reach of us.
I find this profound silence perplexing. The Archers has a good track record in helping listeners understand how the big news stories affect the countryside and the rural economy. It knows from long experience how to weave them seamlessly and unselfconsciously into fictional drama. I wasn't expecting it to take a position on the EU, but I was 100% sure it would deliver on its past form of squaring up to hot topics like the referendum. I was wrong. More wrong than I could ever have guessed. Its avoidance of the EU debate has been near complete. And, I think, cowardly and disappointing.
I used to belong to the wonderful group called the "Archers Anarchists". Their core belief is that the programme isn't make-believe and its participants aren't actors. The place and the people are real. I'm afraid that after the referendum, Ambridge has become less real than it used to be. The cynics and mockers are right. It's a little bit of an imagined but lost England, a feel-good audio theme park that is untroubled by the messy complexities of national and global politics even when they bear directly on it. If the Archers don't care about rural life enough to engage with a national debate with such momentous consequences for all the Ambridges across the UK, why should we bother to take them seriously any more?
Ambridge: you have let us down. I doubt you would have changed anyone's mind. I'm not suggesting you should have tried. But had you been a bit more spirited, we would have gone into the polling booth better informed, whether we live in an urban or a rural environment. I'd have thought it would be an unrivalled opportunity for The Archers to come into its own once again, assert its own relevance, get itself noticed. You showed with Helen and Rob that you knew how to handle a difficult story really well and get the nation talking about it. So why duck out of the referendum? Were you under orders from On High? We need to know.
Ok, let's not get too solemn about it. There's more to life than Ambridge and the referendum. (There really is!) I'm sure the BBC will take this in good part. It comes from a well-wisher. We want Ambridge to flourish as we learn how to inhabit a post-Brexit world. No doubt we'll hear about that from time to time even if it's too late to help us make this biggest political decision of our lifetimes. But we shall keep calm and carry on listening. We're too hooked to do anything else.