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Radio review: Archive on 4: A social history of ‘The Archers’, Breakthrough: The race for the Covid vaccine, and Book of the Week

08 January 2021

BBC

Brian Aldridge (Charles Collingwood) and Adam Macy (Andrew Wincott) in The Archers. Archive on 4: A social history of “The Archers (Radio 4, Saturday) was presented by David Kynaston

Brian Aldridge (Charles Collingwood) and Adam Macy (Andrew Wincott) in The Archers. Archive on 4: A social history of “The Archers (Radio 4, Saturday)...

OVER the years, there have been many ambitious claims made on behalf of The Archers and its influence on the national psyche. From prudent farming practices to domestic violence, the programme has maintained throughout its 70 years a mission to inform; and few would begrudge the producer and scriptwriters a degree of success. But when, at the end of Archive on 4: A social history of The Archers (Radio 4, Saturday), the presenter, David Kynaston, suggested that The Archers might even play a part in healing the divide between Brexit Remainers and Leavers, one could not help feeling that his devotion to Ambridge had made the distinguished professor momentarily soft in the head.

There is a structural tension in the show which no amount of sage advice from Peggy can resolve: between the core audience and the type of community which the show purports to be about. As Kynaston admitted, most farmers in this country supported leaving the EU; but you wouldn’t know it.

Similarly, it is to reflect the well-meaning aspirations of the creative team, supported by audience feedback, that there is greater ethnic diversity in Ambridge than is typical of our rural farming communities.

To complain about these and other such disparities is as churlish as to censor Midsomer Murders for misrepresenting the national crime statistics. On the other hand, nobody would think to map a nation’s history on to the everyday story of homicidal middle-Englanders.

The quality that bestows on The Archers a true authenticity is not its social realism, but — as Kynaston eloquently demonstrated — the confidence that it has in creating grand narrative arcs: such as the brilliantly paced domestic-violence storyline involving Helen and Rob, played out over two years. We have only recently heard a recording made by the long-dead Siobhan for her son Ruairi, now turned 18. So The Archers will be able to take in its stride the seven-year, slow-burn drama of Brexit-deal implementation.

From the impressively slow to the heroically fast. Breakthrough: The race for the Covid vaccine (World Service, Friday) provided a useful guide to what has been going on in the labs while we have been sitting at home watching the infection numbers rise, fall, and rise again.

In truth, you can do without the first quarter of an hour of this show: a retread of a story of the emergence of Covid which has and will be told many times. But hearing, for instance, from the Oxford Ph.D. students whose skills were redirected to this immediate and critically important task, one could not but feel some of the thrill they must have experienced. If you happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, then “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

Finally, and in brief: if you are looking for Tier 4 reading material, and you haven’t already read it, then John Barton’s A History of the Bible should be high on your list (Books, 5 April 2019; Features, 26 April 2019). In last week’s Book of the Week (Radio 4, weekdays), Hugh Bonneville read excerpts in his most comforting, Anglican tone; but the real thing is considerably more provoking.

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