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Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

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Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by Ivan on Tue Dec 27, 2011 3:43 pm

That’s ‘The Archers’, dating from 1950.

In May of that year, the BBC's Midlands Home Service broadcast five pilot episodes of a new, experimental drama series. The producer, Godfrey Baseley, had previously worked mainly on agricultural programmes. ‘The Archers’ was conceived as a means of disseminating information to farmers and smallholders to help increase productivity in the post-World War II years. Baseley hoped that farmers would listen for the stories, but along the way pick up messages that would help them feed a Britain still subject to food rationing and shortages.

The pilot week was only heard in the Midlands. 'The Archers' was first broadcast to the whole of the UK on 1 January 1951, and that’s the date that has always been used for anniversaries. When the programme reached its 60th anniversary at the beginning of January 2011, there had been 16,300 episodes.

‘The Archers’ lost its original educational purpose in 1972, but it still claims that its research enables it to reflect real rural life. It was originally billed as "an everyday story of country folk", but is now described on its Radio 4 website as "contemporary drama in a rural setting". The series now deals with a wide range of issues including illicit affairs, drug abuse, rape and civil partnerships, inviting criticism from conservative commentators such as Peter Hitchens that the series has become a vehicle for liberal and left-wing values and agendas, with characters behaving out of character to achieve those goals.

Vanessa Whitburn has been the programme's editor since 1992 (despite having a near-fatal car crash in February 1994), and she is the focus of much of the criticism from people such as Hitchens. She leads a nine-strong production team and nine writers. The detailed planning is done at monthly script meetings about two months ahead of transmission, after which four of the writers have to produce a week's worth of scripts each in just fourteen days. The episodes are transmitted three to six weeks after recording.

One of the most controversial episodes was broadcast on 22 September 1955, the evening of the launch of the UK's first commercial television station, ITV. Phil and Grace Archer had been married just a few months earlier, and searching for a story which would demonstrate some real tragedy among the increasingly unconvincing episode cliff-hangers, Baseley had decided that Grace would have to die. However, in 1996, William Smethurst, one of the main writers on ‘The Archers’, recounted a conversation with Baseley in which he revealed his real motivation for killing off Grace Archer: Ysanne Churchman, who played Grace, was encouraging the rest of the cast to join a trade union. In 2005, on the 50th anniversary of ITV's launch, Ms Churchman sent a congratulatory card to ITV, signed ‘Grace Archer’.

The actor Norman Painting played Phil Archer continuously from the first trial series in 1950 until his death on 29 October 2009. His last recording for an episode was made just two days before his death and was broadcast on 22 November. Painting holds the title of longest-serving actor in a single soap opera in ‘The Guinness Book of Records’. As a script writer, he also wrote around 1,200 complete episodes. June Spencer, who plays Peggy Woolley, is the last of the original cast, but she hasn’t been in the programme throughout its existence, as she had a lengthy break to raise her children.

Many famous people have made cameo appearances on the programme over the years, starting with Humphrey Lyttleton back in 1956. Others who have appeared include Britt Ekland, Judi Dench, Terry Wogan, John Peel, Alan Titchmarsh, Griff Rhys Jones, Mike Gatting, Colin Dexter and Dame Edna Everage. ‘The Archers’ was a model for a Russian radio soap opera, which translates as ‘House 7, Entrance 4’ and in which Tony Blair made a brief appearance.

The very familiar signature tune for the programme is a maypole dance called ‘Barwick Green’ from the suite ‘My Native Heath’, written in 1924 by the Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood.

So why has ‘The Archers’ been so enduring?
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by oftenwrong on Tue Dec 27, 2011 6:47 pm

Etymologists have yet to define a word equivalent to the Sergeant-Major's "As you were" command, but many of Nature's creatures have a reflex action which is called-up in moments of doubt or confusion. Swat a fly and its reflex is to begin washing itself - a familiar everyday action that assists restoration of its equilibrium.

Humans too have strategies that restore calm to a disordered life, and watching or listening to a "soap opera" gives us time to re-enter our personal normality.

Or you can get drunk out of your mind.

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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by sickchip on Tue Dec 27, 2011 7:16 pm

I thought this thread was referring to the royal family. Silly me!
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My past listening

Post by whitbyforklift on Thu Dec 29, 2011 10:49 pm

Re the Archers.I was a fan of the Archers in the 1960s.
I never missed the Sunday edition prefaced by Bob Arnold who played Tom Forrest.
I met Bob once at a RAOB event when he was giving out brail watches to blind members.
I think I was a much bigger fan of Mrs Dales diary that later became The Dales.
Now thanks to my other half (bless her)I am a Corry and Emerdale fan.
One thing about these two soaps that really stands out is that the police are depicted as total idiots.
Always arresting the wrong people.This of course could not happen in real life?
Over to you Oftenwrong.
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by oftenwrong on Fri Dec 30, 2011 9:40 am

Police? Just like my computer. G I G O. Nothing in-between.
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by roifield on Fri Jan 13, 2012 8:52 am

In part the answer is luck. There have been many times over the last 60 years when having the wrong programme controller at the helm, the programme would have been toast. At some points in the 70's the listernership was not great at all and by accounts the powers that be at the beeb thought that it was irrelevant. But it survived.

I think that the medium of radio has a lot to do with the long lasting appeal of the Archers. You can paint your own picture of the village in your head and of its protagonists, this makes for a highly personal experience when listening, its your special world, tailored only for you. You can't do this with TV, what you see is what you get.
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by oftenwrong on Fri Jan 13, 2012 10:47 am

When TV tries to be "immediate", "relevant" or, worse, "interactive" it loses spontaneity because the audience recognise manipulation when they see it. Radio presents its offering in a way that you can accept or decline without feeling patronised.
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by Boudica on Fri Oct 19, 2012 9:43 pm

I love The Archers :-)

I listened to it with my mum every Sunday morning, while baking or cooking to Sunday roast. I think that's when I was infected.

Mind you, I could live without Jennifer and Shula.
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Status Quo reinforcement?

Post by Andromeda Kraken on Wed Apr 16, 2014 12:43 pm

It could be argued that the longevity of The Archers is thanks to everyone knowing their place and remaining in it. Given that the listenership (in which I am contained, primarily to mock and critique poor scriptage, it should be said) and audience which the show is aimed at are predominately lower middle to upper class, reassurance is arguably derived from the fact that everyone knows their place and noone manages to climb out of said...?

(A lowly social anthropologist)
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by oftenwrong on Wed Apr 16, 2014 5:50 pm

QUOTE: "It could be argued that the longevity of The Archers is thanks to everyone knowing their place and remaining in it."

The "actors" (readers?) are assigned an accent by the Archers scriptwriter which is intended to place them in a readily identifiable stratum of society. Thus the lower orders speak in that Mumerset idiolect, whilst their superiors either speak normally (middle-class) or in RP (the gaffers).

What a revealing comment that makes about us, as listeners.

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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by boatlady on Wed Apr 16, 2014 6:12 pm

Some of the lower orders are a bit brummy, though, and one (almost) posh has a Geordie accent
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by oftenwrong on Wed Apr 16, 2014 11:20 pm

You think so, hinney? I always thought it more of a South Shields intonation.
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

Post by boatlady on Thu Apr 17, 2014 9:55 am

You may be right - probably the wrong side of the river
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Re: Why has the world’s longest running soap opera been so enduring?

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