The Archers returns to Radio 4 with Ambridge under lockdown

Soap opera scraps interaction in favour of monologues recorded at actors’ homes

For actor Annabelle Dowler, recording the Archers under lockdown involved making a den in her daughter’s wardrobe by covering it with duvets and an old mattress and hoping her two children didn’t decide they too wanted to be part of the fun.

Dowler, who plays Kirsty Miller, also put a sign on the door warning that mummy was recording the Archers: “Stay away + be silent otherwise you will get into trouble with the BBC and we will have no iPlayer for the rest of the lockdown!!!”

It worked. Dowler is among the characters who will be returning to Radio 4 from Monday in a very different version of the world’s longest-running soap opera.

After a three-week break in which classic episodes have replaced new ones, the Archers will return with Ambridge also under lockdown. It will not be dominated by coronavirus, though. Episodes in the first week include stories about Tracy and Harrison’s rivalry to be captain of the village cricket team and a minor emergency when the forage harvester driven by Josh Archer breaks down.

There won’t be the the normal interaction between characters. Instead the drama will have monologues recorded by the cast in their homes. It might involve someone leaving a phone message or revealing their inner thoughts.

The first voice heard in the new Archers will be Tim Bentinck, who plays David Archer. He said he was “incredibly proud”. He said on Twitter: “As from Monday, the story of the now-virus-hit Ambridge will be told from the minds of the village characters, in a way that has never been heard in all its sixty-nine years.

“As actors, we’re always after the sub-text – what we say is not necessarily what we mean. Now, what we think is not necessarily what we say!”

Recording the show has been a mix of hi-tech and make-do-and-mend, Dowler said. “Over 20 of us in the cast got sent a massive box with a big halo shield and a mic stand and a microphone and a very detailed email about how to put it altogether.

“It wasn’t too bad. My 10-year-old son helped me. The tricky thing was finding somewhere to record it because you need a room which isn’t looking out on to traffic.”

She was less worried about cars and more concerned that the recording slot didn’t clash with the live Zoom lessons taught by her husband, a Spanish teacher. “As far as I know Kirsty doesn’t actually have any Spanish neighbours in Ambridge.”

Dowler settled on her daughter’s bedroom, hunched in the wardrobe. “Obviously I’d love to have my own studio but we live in a three-bedroomed flat in south-east London so that’s not going to happen.”

Some of the cast have been recording themselves and others, like Dowler, have been linked up to a sound engineer and director. There have also been a mix of Zoom rehearsals and individual runthroughs with directors.

For Dowler, it was a welcome break from the new lockdown life of home schooling and being a 24-hour mum. “To hide away and disappear into the world of Ambridge was a treat, really.”

The Archers’ editor, Jeremy Howe, revealed last week that producers had had to bin 12 scripts and five weeks of storylines which were about to be written when the lockdown arrived.

Big storylines are likely to be put on the backburner, which is particularly galling for Dowler as her character was involved in one of the biggest with her impending marriage to a man who is, unknown to her, a modern-day slave master.

“It was so gutting to have to abandon the story for the time being,” Dowler said.

• This article was amended on 26 May 2020 to clarify that the marriage storyline involving Dowler’s character is being put aside for the time being.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New Archers episodes reveal life under lockdown in Ambridge
Radio 4’s rural soap, waylaid by coronavirus, is back on 25 May to reflect contemporary events

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

18, May, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
The Archers: why June Spencer was the Queen of Ambridge
The actor, who plays Peggy, appeared in the very first episode of the Radio 4 soap in 1951

Charlotte Higgins

08, Aug, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Give us credits, actor June Spencer urges The Archers
Last original cast member says actors should be acknowledged along with writer and editor

Patrick Greenfield

06, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Archers addict Camilla makes Ambridge cameo
Duchess of Cornwall to play herself in episode of Radio 4 soap, with village still reeling from death of Nigel Pargetter

Caroline Davies

02, Feb, 2011 @7:29 PM

Article image
Lockdown reviewed for Ambridge residents | Brief letters
Brief letters: NHS rainbow | Barnard Castle | The Archers | Stockings and tights


28, May, 2020 @4:47 PM

Article image
The Archers’ abuse storyline has year to run, BBC's Tony Hall reveals
Director general talks about Radio 4 soap’s dramatic twist during event addressing threat to corporation’s independence

Jane Martinson

05, Apr, 2016 @9:17 PM

Article image
The Archers takes trip down memory lane amid Covid-19 delays
Archive episodes to air in May as cast grapples with recording new material from home

Guardian staff and agency

18, Apr, 2020 @10:06 AM

Article image
Archers fans prepare for shock anniversary episode
Twists and teasers expected in double-length show 60 years after first broadcast

Mark Lawson

31, Dec, 2010 @2:55 PM

Article image
Morrissey invited to take guest role in BBC Radio 4's The Archers
Former Smiths singer 'fascinated' by offer and could follow Bradley Wiggins and Duchess of Cornwall as Ambridge visitor. By John Plunkett

John Plunkett

15, May, 2014 @2:52 PM

Radio review: A month in Ambridge
Matt has hired a hitman to go after Paul – but this is a very Ambridge kind of hitman. Other than that, it's silage, silage, silage

Nancy Banks-Smith

28, May, 2013 @4:41 PM