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Book review: Underneath The Archers: My life as an undercover agent for nature by Graham Harvey

24 November 2023

Malcolm Doney opens a must-read for all addicts of The Archers

GRAHAM HARVEY has had an almost lifelong association with Britain’s longest running soap opera, The Archers, as have I. Harvey — as longstanding scriptwriter turned agricultural story editor of the show for more than 30 years — knows the inside history of this venerable institution.

He cleverly interweaves storylines and script extracts from Ambridge with his own history, against a backdrop of the shifting landscape of farming life and agricultural policy that has changed the face of rural Britain.

I was born the same year as the pilot episode of The Archers was aired, 1950. My mother tuned in every evening, and the tumpti-tumpti-tumpti-tum signature tune filled our west-London terraced house. Back then, it was known as an “everyday story of countryfolk”.

It was the everyday element that I loved, which is why I have maintained an on-off, love-hate relationship with the programme for 70-and-a-bit years. Harvey recalls a histrionics-free discussion of dairy cows between David, Ruth, and Pip Archer round the Bridge Farm kitchen table, when earth mother Jill drops this bombshell: “I think I’ll make that coffee. And I’m sure we could all do with a piece of fruitcake.” All shall be well. . .

For me, the condition of Joe Grundy’s ferrets or Bert Fry’s veg patch always trumped the Archers’ increasing number of lurches into melodrama. It was Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall from the roof of Lower Loxley Hall and the stabbing of the coercive brute Rob Titchener, for instance, which forced me into temporary Archers cold turkey. But the Archers habit is hard to break.

Harvey is a big champion of the Grundy family, who have been cast for decades as the corner-cutting, dodgy-dealing lovable rogues of the soap. He regrets the supporting part that The Archers has played in the input-rich, hedge-destroying wildlife enmity that is modern chemical-based agribusiness. He rues his influence as a scriptwriter, too. He sees the Grundys’ small-scale, mixed-farm tenancy as a model of where agriculture should be heading: “When The Archers began, there were tens of thousands of farms like this across Britain. They were the mainstay of the nation’s food system, and with good reason.”

It is fascinating to read how Harvey’s passion for a more nature-friendly agriculture interplayed with the demands for storylines and an overarching narrative about paradigm shifts in farming life and policy. The author also weaves in his own, touching, family history, as he goes in search of his father’s secretive Second World War past.

What comes through most of all, though, is Harvey’s soulful attachment to the fictional community that he had such a personal hand in creating. For any Archers fan, this book is the full welly.

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.


Underneath the Archers: My life as an undercover agent for nature
Graham Harvey
Unbound £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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