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Trial by jury

16 September 2016


IT IS through our imagined conflicts that we reveal our most intimate anxieties and prejudices. Thus, in the jury-room battle that, in the BBC’s PR, “gripped the nation” on Sunday, devotees of The Archers (Radio 4) were presented with their perfect heroes, and incarnations of their deepest aversions.

On the dark side, we had the angry abattoiriste, representative of that bloody business end of the farming cycle which The Archers generally shields us from. Then there was the white-trash mother, bigoted and racist. Why can’t all poor people be like the Grundys, we ask ourselves. And, finally, the conniving foreman, a man who would just as soon bulldoze your family-owned, organic, rare-breed farm to create a golf course as look you in the eye.

On Sunday night, however, none was up to the challenge presented by the juror Jacqui, the perfect Archers heroine. Equipped with a wisdom and articulacy gained from seniority, she insists with courteous determination on the central question of Helen’s guilt: did the accused have reason to think, in that tragic moment, that her son was at risk?

Jacqui stripped her opponents down to expose their bare prejudices: the mother, a victim of abuse herself; the foreman, barred from seeing his children — owing to some unspecified conflict — she dealt with each of them like an expert jam-maker peeling a bowl of kumquats. By the end, the verdict for which we had dared hope was delivered, and our heroine, the Henry Fonda in Borsetshire’s replay of Twelve Angry Men, took the bus home.

And who played the part of this mysterious juror? None other than Dame Eileen Atkins, supported by cameos from Nigel Havers, Catherine Tate, and others. Even Graham Seed — last heard on The Archers falling from an improbably high roof — came to the party. Indeed, for a storyline of such power and resonance to conclude in this way might be regarded as inappropriate. It is OK to have Alan Titchmarsh come and judge a garden competition, but when a story has “gripped the nation” and, apparently, raised awareness of domestic-violence issues, you do not want to be thinking all the time that the foreman is going to suggest a Nescafé break, or the loud-mouthed mother throw in an “Am I bovvered?”

As it transpired, the Sunday episode, and those leading up to it, were handled with a grip on reality as assured as any of the best TV soap scripts; and by that I mean it deserves comparison with broadcast drama at its best. Think the Brookside body under the patio, or Christmas Day 1986 on EastEnders. The orchestration and pacing of the jury’s arguments had a musical quality to them: fugue and counterpoint of the kind that the pianist and radio producer Glenn Gould might have produced.

For such complexity to work, the stratification and range of the voices must be managed carefully; and it became clear that the diversity of voice types gathered here was not just a nod to liberal pluralism, but had an acoustical function as well.

This is not a story with a clean ending, as Sunday’s episode made clear. Rob is not dead; and his accountant at least will be delighted that he and Helen share a child. As one story arc comes to an end, another rises.

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