Is Stella gay? My hopes are high. Mia, Borsetshire’s Greta Thunberg, has decided that the new manager of Home Farm would make a lovely wife for her stepfather, Will Grundy, who never sounds sexy but maybe is, given that he is a former gamekeeper. Mia opined that Stella seemed to be straight – which, knowing Mia’s powers of perception, means she is the most obvious lesbian who ever walked this Earth. What would you call your dog, if you had one, Mia asked her, brightly? The answer: Weaver. After Sigourney Weaver in Alien. I mean: come on.
I would rest my case right there, but then came a touching scene between Stella and Ruth Archer, during which Stella found Ruth’s lost invoices, and coquettishly suggested a drink. I admit this does not necessarily suggest Lauren Bacall-Humphrey Bogart levels of sexual charge. Nevertheless, my partner, no great Archers listener, walked into the room at this moment, and, unprompted, declared: “This is so gay!” Seriously: I can see it. Say David Archer is killed by – well, there are so many possibilities on a farm – drowning in the slurry pit, shall we say? Then Ruth becomes a later-blooming lesbian and has a rapturous affair with Stella, thoroughly complicating the Home Farm/Brookfield inheritance nexus.
The Archers is deeply invested in the village rituals that mark the passage of the year: flower and produce show, fete, harvest supper. Winter means some over-elaborate amateur theatricals mounted by Lynda Snell: this year, it was medieval mystery plays peripatetically adapted to locations scattered through Ambridge – the annunciation in the kitchen at Brookfield, that kind of thing.
One of the most peculiar things on British radio – no, in British culture altogether – must be the full Radio 4 broadcast of this production, in which the listener hears professional actors playing characters who are amateurishly playing another set of characters. So far, so The Mousetrap. But it’s much odder than that: into this cocktail are added voiceovers from Archers characters qua Archers characters (rather than mysteries characters) informing the listener whereabouts in Ambridge we are.
Then there’s the sound design, which, far from bringing us Borsetshire in December, offers us the hum of cicadas to summon up a warm night in Bethlehem. There is also a soundtrack of vaguely medieval-sounding music – presumably meant to recall the period in which the mystery plays were originally conceived. In short, it’s a splendidly odd layering of temporal, geographic and imaginative spaces for which the word “meta” completely fails to do justice. One can only pity the casual turner of the radio dial. It must be utterly impenetrable.
Finally, a thought with which to end 2021: what is Hazel Woolley up to?
• This article was amended on 21 January 2022 to clarify that Will Grundy is no longer a gamekeeper.