The Archers: 65th anniversary show milks suspense from a cow crisis

Writers had hinted at a shock plot twist but the BBC Radio 4 stalwart marked its birthday with a dramatic discussion of dairy farming

A soap opera that seems set to continue until the cows come home, BBC Radio 4’s The Archers celebrated its 65th birthday with a storyline about the cows leaving home.

A crisis in British dairy farming – a narrative that sees the series remaining true to its original roots in promoting countryside issues for the Ministry of Agriculture – has threatened David – the grandson of Dan and Doris Archer, the Adam and Eve of Ambridge – with having to sell off his herd and cease milk production at Brookfield farm.

However, with the show simultaneously milking a crisis in David’s marriage, as his Geordie wife, Ruth (catchphrase, in extremis, “Aw, naw!”), brooded on her problems during an extended visit to New Zealand, David risked ending up jobless and Ruthless.

For the lead female characters in The Archers, this has been a period of keeping things close to their chests. Lynda Snell, bicycling busybody and amateur-dramatic impresario, chose for her seasonal production Calendar Girls, a drama about middle class women taking off their clothes, although in this case with the metaphysical twist of nudity that the audience can’t see.

For the past few days, though, the show’s 5 million listeners (and the downloaders who have put the show at the top of the BBC’s podcast charts) have also been offered a more traditional form of Archers striptease, in which the scriptwriters tantalised the audience with which of several current storylines might be the firework that ignited to mark Friday night’s 65th anniversary edition.

The show’s landmark birthdays, traditionally containing a shock plot twist, have become a nervous time for actors, who can find themselves beginning the year with an ending. Five years ago, Graham Seed was written out after 28 years in the cast when his character, Nigel Pargetter, slipped from the roof of his house while trying to fix a flapping Happy New Year banner.

Apart from the crisis with the cows and the vows of David and Ruth, another narrative strand with the potential to cause an anniversary flap involved Rob Titchener – the series’ newest baddie, a marital rapist and nasty control freak.

As the 65th anniversary approached, surviving cast members could take some reassurance from interviews in which Sean O’Connor, the editor of The Archers since 2013, seemed to express regrets about his predecessor having put the skids under Nigel. However, O’Connor also told the Radio Times that this birthday payoff would be a “defining moment” for the show and would mark the anniversary in a way that no other broadcasting franchise had done.

On Friday night, between 7.02 and 7.14pm, O’Connor proved true to his word. It is certain that no previous long-running drama – from Guiding Light in the US to Coronation Street in the UK – has ever passed a broadcasting landmark with a lengthy discussion of the effect on milk yield and profit levels of different methods of dairy farming in New Zealand, Ireland and a made-up place in Middle England.

During her antipodean trip, Ruth had concluded that David should sell his herd, cuing poignant use of the show’s extensive repertoire of moo sound-effects. But just as listeners thought “Aw, naw!”, Ruth revealed plan B: the purchase of a new, smaller herd, presumably cheaper on the soundtrack budget. Actors Timothy Bentinck and Felicity Finch gamely played probably the only scene in the history of drama in which the punchline was “low-cost pasture-based farming”.

Compared with the impact five years ago of Nigel’s departure, some listeners may have felt that, in common with Mrs Snell’s Calendar Girls, this was all tease and no reveal. However, the underlying desire of listeners for there always to be Archers at Brookfield farm has been satisfied for the foreseeable future, and, with several loose ends still to be tied, probably around Titchener’s neck, the show sets out confidently towards its 70th birthday celebrations.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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