Time to call time on The Archers?
My mother never liked The Archers. Radio 4 would always be playing in the kitchen while we were getting dinner ready, so Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The News Quiz were staples of my childhood, but when the opening bars of The Archers theme struck up at 7pm, she would practically launch herself across the kitchen to switch it off. It made me curious – what could possibly be so bad?
When I started to live on my own, I bought myself a digital radio which quickly became my best friend. It was a source of constant interest, entertainment and education, and would babble away in the corner while I went about my business – much better than an attention-demanding television. I would delight in the 6.30pm comedy slot, and with a slight sense of guilt, leave it tuned to Radio 4 as the 7 o clock news came and went and the schedule turned to The Archers. I quickly became an addict. As opposed to my mother, I loved the ‘soapiness’ of it. It’s silly, and dramatic, and in many cases wholly unbelievable, but therein lies its attraction. I liked the way the writers wove the many story lines around each other, and the fact that it didn’t matter if you missed an episode – every conversation in the next one would let you know what you’d missed. I came to know the characters, and built their pictures in my head (nothing like their real faces, I might add – never go on the website of your favourite radio show). I even stuck with it through Helen’s trial which, I have to admit, was a bit far-fetched.
But today, for the first time ever, I turned it off mid-episode. It was a reaction that has been bubbling away for a while now, a feeling of misrepresentation of real life, far too much scandal, and missed opportunities to explore issues that I feel are really important.
In today’s episode, the insufferable Nolutando criticised the even more insufferable Kate’s diet: “That vegan food takes so long to eat.” It’s only a tiny moment and a tiny example, but it sums up everything that is wrong with The Archers. Stereotypes abound. ‘Vegan’ food, or ‘food’ to you and me, is simply that. If I choose to eat a raw vegetable salad, which is what I think the writers were implying, then yes, it might take a lot of chewing. Anyone can eat a raw vegetable salad, vegan or not. A chicken salad would probably take as long to eat. If I am in a hurry to catch a train, as those characters were, I would pick up a wrap from Bar Burrito which exists at most London train stations, and tuck into my delicious, easy-to-eat, satisfying mix of beans, rice, salad, salsa, and guacamole on the train. Not all ‘vegan’ food is difficult to eat. Sometimes I just eat chips.
Surely it wouldn’t have hurt the writers to come up with a different excuse for missing the train? Nolutando wanted to try on one more dress; Kate couldn’t resist picking up a face lift kit from a health food store. Earlier, Kate has cited her being vegan as a reason she should be surrogate for Ian and Adam’s child. Her diet makes her healthy. I bristle at things like this, small, insignificant things that shouldn’t matter, but that perpetuate people’s misconceptions about a lifestyle choice I have made. The assumption is that my diet is boring, healthy and measly. But it’s not! Yes, I am healthy, but that’s because I eat sensibly, not because I’m vegan. I am never ever hungry after eating (except for the time I went to The Narrow – one of Gordon Ramsey’s, no less – and was given the equivalent of a side salad for my dinner. But that’s another story), my diet is varied, filling, and delicious. And it can even involve fried food!
I’m perpetually frustrated at stereotypes such as this. Perhaps the writers were trying to avoid that trap with another storyline, about the fruit picker Lexy from Bulgaria who’s been doing seasonal work on Adam’s farm. It was an important issue to explore, that of EU workers, one that is emotive and will speak to many people in wake of Brexit. But I can’t help feeling this was also a missed opportunity. Lexy was well-educated with an excellent grasp of the English language, which made it almost laughable that she approached Kirsty for English lessons. I have a Bulgarian friend who has lived in England for far longer than Lexy, whose English is nowhere near as good. Regardless, she is excellent at her job, and she has an English husband and an English daughter. That’s the reality: people making a success of life in a foreign country despite the language barrier and communication issues. Instead, Lexy sails through conversations, being given explanations of misinterpreted English idioms which they all have a good old laugh about.
It wasn’t until recently that I looked up the characters online – after four years, I still don’t know how everyone is interconnected (as all families tend to be in a soap opera), and with the arrival of Nolutando, one of Kate’s children, none of whom she’s much of a mother to, my head was spinning. I was horrified to read about how many affairs everyone has had, and how many illegitimate children have been born as a result. Call me naive, but it does seem ridiculous. And now, Kate is offering to be surrogate for Adam and Ian? The surrogacy storyline has already been covered a while back, with Ian’s best friend Mads failing to come good on the deal (before my time, but it’s not that hard to get the picture). What is wrong with a married couple adopting? That would have been an excellent storyline to pursue, especially as it could address the fact that perhaps having all these children isn’t such a good idea after all…
I’ve finally seen that The Archers just pays lip service to the issues that actually matter. It was created to educate and enthuse the public about farming, but it seems to have become a parody of itself. And though it breaks my heart to admit it, as when someone you love turns out not to be quite the person you thought they were, I think my time with The Archers is over. Perhaps my mother was right after all.