Of all the comparisons that have been made in the history of humanity, one of the most surprising was perhaps the statement that The Archers, the long-running wireless tale of everyday farming folk, was ‘the Rolling Stones of Radio 4’. But that was exactly what Jeremy Howe, the current editor, recently claimed.
He pointed to the fact that the soap is apparently now as popular with millennials as it is with its core audience of over-50s. The Archers has also been in the top five shows for under-35s in the BBC Sounds app since 2019 – and Radio 4’s most listened-to non-news programme.
Leaving aside the fact that Howe sweetly thought the Rolling Stones were the most apt parallel for Things That Millennials Think Are Cool, I was heartily cheered by this news. I’ve
been listening to The Archers since the age of four, and have patiently been waiting for the drama to come back into fashion, in much the same way as I have corduroy trousers, grammatical pedantry and 90s hip hop (yes, I love The Archers and 90s hip hop! I contain multitudes).
I started listening because my parents did. It became part of our evening ritual. We would gather around the kitchen table and time the start of dinner to coincide with the opening theme tune. After 15 minutes of listening, we’d chat – the topics of conversation often sparked by the plotlines.
I became so obsessed with The Archers that the cast members, en masse, were the recipient of my first ever fan letter. I must have been about ten and I had taken the trouble to write an actual script, complete with a lot of dialogue for my favourite character, Elizabeth, who I liked because she had my name and was a journalist, which I wanted to be.
The producers sent me back signed cast photos and a kind letter – and I have never forgotten it. It is this, I think, which is at the core of what makes The Archers great. Despite the fact that it deals with the goings-on of a small village farming community, it is an inclusive programme no matter where you’re listening from.
The bulk of the characters are connected to the central, eponymous family and in opening their fictional lives to us, we become part of that extended relationship. We really care about whether Brian is going to build an anaerobic digester even if we have very little clue what an anaerobic digester is. But we care because of the impact it might have on his nearest and dearest. It is, at its heart, a relational drama.
It is also a programme that rewards investment. When you listen regularly, you get to know the characters with as much intimacy as you understand your eccentric but lovable aunt or the sister-in-law who always insists on buying you comedy jumpers for Christmas. You understand their quirks, and you get a sense of achievement when, for the first time,
you instantly recognise someone’s voice. In this world of fast-paced, 24-hours news, there is great satisfaction to be had in the slow, believable development of character. And during lockdown, when many of us longed for the rural idyll, it was nice to be aurally transported to the bucolic English countryside.
That’s not to say The Archers isn’t thrilling because it certainly can be. Recently, we’ve had the riveting breakdown of a marriage between two characters, one of whom is battling alcoholism, and an utterly believable plot involving modern slavery. Both storylines would be equally at home on a must-watch Netflix boxset.
I’m now 42 and listening to The Archers has been more or less a constant throughout my life. I’m so glad the younger generation are catching on. It makes me feel very on trend.
This week I’m…
Married At First Sight Australia. Seemingly 500 episodes long and I still can’t get enough. Catch up on the latest series on All 4.
My make-up with Halo Glow Setting Powder (£8, elfcosmetics.co.uk). It reduces shine as well as giving a sheen of perfection.