News From Ambridge

For my readers from away, or indeed those here who have never caught the habit of catching the goings on in Ambridge of an evening, we’re been listening over the last two years to a storyline aimed at addressing coercive control on the programme. It’s riveting but also  increasingly unbearable listening.

Here’s a question for fellow writers; is there ever a point at which you sacrifice narrative to spare your reader? We can’t imagine doing this, and in fact never have, but we’ve also never spent two years shaping the kind of nerve fraying plot we’ve had on The Archers lately.

We want to say first that the emergence of this question has nought to do with the quality of the writing. Narratively it’s brilliant. The story-craft is laudable, as is the acting. But increasingly the listening community has been heard to say it feels emotionally gas-lit itself by the long-running story arc, and the longer it runs the more we’re beginning to see their argument. When it finally reached narrative climax –or possible a Dark Moment but definitely some key anchor scene –we were left genuinely cold and covered in goose-flesh, quietly shivering while we took in what had happened. We kept on being caught like that for a whole week, almost as if we were in shock, and goodness knows it took long enough for the cold to wear off afterwards. Consequently we’re curious, when do you sacrifice story for your audience, and should you?

It seems heresy to say there’s a point at which it’s acceptable to sacrifice story intent and even now we’re not sure that’s ever the answer. What we do think though is that we didn’t need this story in such excruciating detail.

There’s an old maxim that says that if treated intelligently we read intelligently. If you hint at gas-lighting and domestic violence, we’ll follow that through. Goodness knows, we all did that anyway back in the early days when Rob declined to eat a tuna bake. All up and down the country we shouted at the radio and prophesied this man’s awfulness and said ‘leave now, Helen. For God’s sake, go.’

That was enough. Someone somewhere, back when things came to crisis, did the maths and said that what we’d had was roughly a Helen and Rob storyline every other day for two years. That’s something like three episodes a week. What was needed, we think, for the sake of our collective sanity, was perhaps an episode every two weeks, maybe once a week. The scriptwriters could have still turned those screws and dimmed the gas lights while saying they were doing nothing of the kind; we’d have put it together.

And dare we say it, that might have been more effective. There is nothing so potent as the void of imagination. What we don’t know for certain we fill in. We’d have all come up with something slightly different to account for what was happening at Blossom Hill Cottage, and we feel confident in asserting it would have been pretty uniformly grim and awful. More importantly, it wouldn’t have overbalanced the focus of the programme, as has arguably happened.

That’s the real problem; it’s not that the story is shockingly realistic. We’ve done realism before. We even have a taste for doom –Thomas Hardy is one of those author’s whose works we’d salvage in the event of flood –it’s the imbalance. We’re all off-kilter, caught up in this claustrophobic drama of coercive control and manipulation, and we have nothing of the same weight and substance to counteract it. We’re only just now beginning to get back some of the levity we’ve missed but because we’re so far skewed to the side of gloom at the moment, it’s mostly leaving us with emotional whip-lash. We needed, and should have had this light-heartedness months ago, preferably at the same calibre as the coercive control story to save our nerves completely unravelling.

It’s a brilliant story. Incredible good has come out of it, and it absolutely needed and deserved the focus it was given. It’s well told. None of that’s the trouble. We’re worn out. It’s as simple as that.

Why What Happened in Brighton Doesn’t Matter

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.