Bad things would seem happen in Brighton, or so Austen and Graham Greene have given us to understand. These last few weeks The Archers -a radio drama set in the fictive Midlands village of Ambridge –has been attempting to more firmly impress this idea on us, only this time we find we don’t care. Why not? It’s all to do with plot, or rather the lack of one.
It was brought to our attention recently that there is a curious divide when it comes to storylines in Ambridge wherein a plot is either character-driven or story motivated. At its writerly best though, the programme understands fundamentally that character is story, and this is why we do not care what happened in Brighton.
All credit is due to the writers, they have done a lot to move us from disinterest to what is almost interest in Rex and Toby Fairbrother, who are at the centre of the non-plot that is the drama in Brighton. We still have to pause to distinguish them, and appreciate it when their neighbours decide to treat us as if we have developed amnesia by addressing them by name, but when Rex and Toby aren’t talking marketing gibberish about pasteurised eggs we do find them moderately engaging. At least, we’re invested in Rex because he has been allowed to break from his role of The Good Brother enough to betray a vulnerability that works to round out his character. Toby remains a source of perpetual irritation. (This, by the by, is how we have come to tell them apart. We aren’t convinced they aren’t voiced by the same actor.) It’s a shame really that Rex isn’t the one sorting out crises in Brighton. Then we might almost be engaged with the story.
More crucially –and character dimensionality notwithstanding – we don’t know what happened in Brighton. It’s being held off screen as it were, presumably to generate tension and so interest for the listeners, but that only works if the character motivation behind the Brighton-related crisis that needs resolution is apparent, which it isn’t. We have no sense of why Rex and Toby bolted from Brighton, no sense of why Toby lately returned thence and even less sense of why they have come to Ambridge to farm geese and pasture-fed hens. Without these things it’s difficult to care much about Toby’s history, much less generate tension. What we do have is half a character in the shape of Toby who insists on intruding unresolved back-story into the conversation at odd moments. Much like listening to an unresolved chord this is unfulfilling.
For the Brighton story to work effectively for us, we need either to round out the nuisance that is Toby Fairbrother, or we need what happened in Brighton to be spelled out in English that is not cluttered by marketing babble. Until one –or ideally both –of these things happen, we will remain indifferent to all things Fairbrother, geese, hens, clumsy attempts at flirtations, the lot.