Ysanne Churchman and Norman Painting recording The Archers in 1954 (Picture: Getty)

OPINION

Sex, soil and an equal pay scandal – it's The Archers

 A startling revelation this week regarding Grace Archer and an equal pay dispute has thrust the radio drama into the limelight. But the complexities of women's lives have always been centre stage in The Archers, says Nell Frizzell

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By Nell Frizzell on

There is a scandal in Ambridge. And it’s even worse than when Tom Archer made his girlfriend put something called a "pork cobbler" in her mouth. 

As befits a programme that once dragged the purchase of a kitchen out across a three-month storyline, this scandal has been 60 years in the making. But, just like the problem of how to make the perfect ginger biscuit, or whether you should leave your mother-in-law to die across cold cobbles in the North West, it’s a scandal that is both timeless and worrying. Grace Archer was killed in a house fire, allegedly, because the actor who played her had asked for equal pay. That’s right: Ysanne Churchman, now aged 90, has recently described her exit from Britain’s longest-running repository of spare wheat yield jokes as “victimisation, because I had been to Equity to get my fees put right".

But that’s not all. The plot, like Fat Paul’s waistline, thickens further because executives at Radio 4 allegedly also killed off Grace to draw attention away from the launch of ITV on the same night. Like King Agamemnon doing in his daughter to get a good wind, The Archers’ creator, Godfrey Baseley, allegedly sent the young farmer's wife up like a firework to guide listeners away from the new threat of commercial television. Like so many times before (and regretfully often since), sloughing off the demands of a politically engaged woman and boosting personal interest seemed like killing two birds with one stone.

But, while various radio formats – from panel shows like The Unbelievable Truth, which recently had an all-female set of contestants, to the Today programme, which was presented by a four-strong team of women in 2013 – have made efforts to improve their gender equity, how has the nation’s favourite story of simple countryfolk adapted to changing sexual politics? Have women on the show bloomed like Joe Grundy’s shit-fed tomatoes? Or lain fallow like Adam’s famous herbal lay?

Well, thanks to the long-form nature of The Archers (it’s on every night for 15 minutes – please do try to keep up), the show often manages to create fairly nuanced storylines that show female characters changing and adapting to circumstance. The sheer attrition of day-after-day, milking-after-milking, horse-shoe-after-horse-shoe, terrible-heavy-breathing-after-terrible-heavy-breathing episodes means that even a character like Usha can be sustained by the odd storyline. I mean, nobody really knows what Usha is for. Why is she there? All she ever does is pop up to offer someone a bit of free legal advice, buy Ruth Archer a piece of cake and occasionally marry a vicar. But she can be used by the writers of the show, from time to time, to explore questions of female independence, faith, race and finance. She’s basically Ambridge’s answer to Robert Peston, but with a tendency to play online poker and fart on endlessly about her salsa classes.

Just like in life, women’s problems, progression and pain feature in The Archers as just one element among the boring, mundane, lusterless details of modern life

Where The Archers really excels, argues journalist Kat Brown, is in creating recognisable female characters. "The Archers has long thrived on female characters who are rounded, rather than that godawful trope 'strong'," says Brown. "In fact, over the last couple of years, it's the men who have suffered. There's been a tendency to cast actors with similar voices, and not give them much to do, which doesn't help to identify who's who. That's not a problem you have with the women – even if they're wildly annoying, they each have clear personalities that help to drive stories. The 'new' Kate Madikane is utterly compelling, even while her character is being a nightmarish cow who deserves a good telling-off."

Although, of course, there are some godawful stereotypes on the show. Older single woman Carol Tregorran is basically a potion-brewing, marrow-fattening, drug-fermenting witch. Lilian Bellamy is a gin-swilling, chain-smoking "bizniz" woman who gets facelifts like I buy Freddos. Susan Carter is a narrow-minded, yoghurt-stirring social climber. Jennifer Aldridge is a downtrodden farmhouse kitchen with limbs, while her illegitimate son, Adam, one of the show’s few gay characters, is of course unfaithful and promiscuous, indulging in the odd bout of al fresco sex up against a Portakabin in a strawberry field or snogging his boss at New Year.

However, the prosaic nature of The Archers also allows it to address sensitive storylines in a far less sensationalist way that its television counterparts. The rape of Kathy Perks by her friend Owen King wasn’t the stuff of dark alleyway horror films – rather, it reflected the fact that 90 per cent of victims of the most serious sexual offences know the perpetrator. The slowburn sub-plot of Helen Titchener’s abusive relationship with husband Rob is one of the few times that the creeping escalation of psychological abuse has been played out in almost real time. Ruth Archer’s miscarriage, Peggy Woolley’s grief over her husband’s dementia, Shula’s infidelity and Debbie Aldridge’s infertility were all made more poignant precisely because they ran alongside storylines about milk prices, road building, shop opening hours and damp. Just like in life, women’s problems, progression and pain feature in The Archers as just one element among the boring, mundane, lusterless details of modern life. Whatever is happening, there will always be rain. There will always be soil. And, thank God, there will always be women.

@NellFrizzell

Ysanne Churchman and Norman Painting recording The Archers in 1954 (Picture: Getty)
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