Sensitive Archers plot wins plaudits

A long running storyline in the Archers radio soap has been commended for its sensitivity and accuracy by the Alzheimer's Society. By Chris Arnot

If fans of The Archers harboured any doubts that Peggy Woolley would stand by her man, they were firmly squashed in yesterday's edition. The formidable matriarch crisply informed her daughter, Jennifer, that husband Jack would be sprung from The Willows nursing home as soon as possible, despite his steadily deteriorating dementia. What's more, she would look after him herself - never mind that she is still recovering from a stroke brought on by the strain of looking after Jack in the first place.

Thus, a storyline that has been simmering for at least three years is coming to the boil. With one in six of the population over 80 suffering from Alzheimer's, Vanessa Whitburn, editor of The Archers, thought it likely that at least one Ambridge octogenarian would be affected. "We felt that we could do the story properly because we can do it over such a long period in real time," she says.

Television soap operas are under more pressure to move plots on, she points out. Coronation Street, for instance, visited Alzheimer's on Mike Baldwin, the hitherto sharp-as-nails underwear magnate. "It was very affecting," Whitburn says, "but done and dusted very quickly." The decline of Woolley, another self-made entrepreneur, has unfolded more realistically, she feels. "And we've been keen to show that he has good days as well as bad. "

Before embarking on the storyline, Whitburn rang actors Arnold Peters and June Spencer, who play the Woolleys. Both had experience of close relatives with dementia - very close in the case of Spencer, who nursed her husband, Roger, through Alzheimer's until his death. At the time, she was 81. She is now approaching her 90th year, yet still regularly travels from her home in Surrey to the studio in Birmingham.

"I invited June to talk to the scriptwriters before we started," Whitburn recalls. "I also told her that if she had a problem with the script, she could suggest ways of changing it. I'm very proud that she hasn't felt the need."

Last year, the programme won a Mental Health Media award, and this week Alzheimer's Society chief executive Neil Hunt said: "Every person's journey through dementia is different, but The Archers accurately and sensitively portrays the devastating impact the condition can have on people's lives."

The Archers is on Radio 4 daily at 2pm and 7pm


Chris Arnot

The GuardianTramp

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