THE “dum-de-dum” beat of Barwick Green — theme tune to Radio 4’s The Archers — was my womb music, my parents being inveterate listeners. As a West Midlander, I found the fictional county of Borsetshire both beguilingly local and bewilderingly other. Now, as a rural parish priest, I still discover Ambridge resonances in village life, which, if the latest Archers scholarship is anything to go by, might possibly be creatively interpreted in the light of faith and ministry.
The programme has numerous well-organised, vocal followers — and not just fans as such. Now established as an interdisciplinary “scholarly wing” of avid listeners, the group Academic Archers connects researchers and subjects in surprising ways. It explores an almost inexhaustible supply of germane issues from an academic perspective by taking Ambridge as a paradigm for contemporary village life.
From the negative aspects of competing at flower and produce shows to the absence of primary education in the programme; from cake consumption and the health of village residents to Ambridge’s response to the catastrophic floods of 2015; and from kinship networks to coercive control and prison diet, this intriguing collection of the most recent conference papers, presented in Custard, Culverts and Cake, captures both the inventiveness of current debates and their relevance to the ever-shifting pattern of 21st-century rural life.
True, Ambridge is a fictional, dramatic setting; but, in the breadth of their analysis, the Academic Archers successfully illuminate some of the complexities of communities where many of us minister. In “God in Ambridge”, rather than address the pressing issues of how small village churches and multi-parish benefices can maximise their missional resources, Jonathan Hustler uses The Archers as a valid field for testing practical theology in a rural context. With reference to specific situations, such as replacing a herd to provide milk in lower quantity but higher quality, or abandoning intensive, chemical-dependent soil fertilisation in favour of herbal leys and no-till agriculture, he raises wider questions about our relationship with God and creation.
It is, however, the long-running, convoluted, and, at times, unbearably painful storyline concerning Rob Titchener’s abusive control of his wife, Helen, which focuses much abstract observation down into the mess of daily life. When the Vicar, Alan Franks, tries to minister to the disgraced and wounded Rob, he finds it impossible to reach this self-proclaimed outsider. Alan’s struggles to deal with the restrictions that Rob’s intransigence seems to place on what he believes to be God’s limitless grace were played out on prime-time radio, tackling faith matters over several episodes in a way that most soaps would eschew.
Perhaps this is why, as this book reminds us, The Archers may still have value as a tool for theological and pastoral reflection.
The Revd Richard Greatrex is Associate Priest of Barrow Gurney, in North Somerset.
Custard, Culverts and Cake: Academics on life in “The Archers”
Cara Courage and Nicola Headlam, editors
Emerald Publishing £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50