Why The Archers is currently at its best

Acting editor John Yorke has worked wonders on the Radio 4 serial, according to David Brown

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When it comes to speaking their mind, contributors to The Archers messageboards aren’t backwards in coming forwards: “[He’s] arrogant and patronizing. The word I would use to describe him rhymes with ‘anchor’” being one vitriolic posting.

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The trouble is that it’s not Matt Crawford or Brian Aldridge being insulted, but John Yorke, the acting editor of the BBC Radio 4 drama. It’s the kind of opprobrium you expect to see heaped on a corrupt politician or a misbehaving Premiership footballer rather than the boss of a long-running soap, but you anger Ambridge aficionados at your peril.

In the past, we too at Radio Times have experienced something of this upset. Whenever we publish a picture of an Archers actor (sorry again for the above image), letters arrive chastising us for ruining the listening experience. Some fans don’t want to know what their favourite characters look like in real life and tell us so in no uncertain terms.

But this is nothing compared to the apparent displeasure generated by one current Archers plotline: the witness intimidation of Ruth and David. “If I wanted EastEnders storylines, I’d watch it,” writes one forum member, while another states that “Ambridge is about real life, not ‘enhanced reality’. [Yorke’s] current effort at enhancement is destroying the basic concept”.

It’s a level of criticism that I feel is shrill and unwarranted. The tension at Brookfield is part of a long tradition of high drama on the show that can be traced from Grace Archer’s death in a barn fire in 1955 through to Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall in 2011. Those who claim that The Archers should be nothing more than bucolic whimsy would do well to remember that without such periods of peril, we’d be left with a very anaemic programme.

And let’s not forget also that it’s hardly wall-to-wall catastrophe in Borsetshire at the moment anyway. The persecution of David and Ruth is just part of a mix that includes preparations for the Community Games, the tribulations of the village cricket team, Phoebe rescheduling her return from South Africa and Brian’s wranglings with the Borchester Land board. All pretty standard fare, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Yet the concept that’s lodged in the minds of listeners is that head honcho John Yorke is also the Controller of BBC Drama Production and a one-time executive producer of EastEnders, so must therefore be intent on turning Ambridge into an offshoot of Albert Square.

This distortion stems from an interview that Yorke gave to me for a recent edition of RT in which he revealed that one particular storyline – the intimidation of Ruth and David – was to get “darker and bigger”. Cue widespread media misrepresentation that the whole show was to lose its grip on aspects of country life and become increasingly explosive and melodramatic. In reality, Yorke had been just as keen to emphasise his respect for “the seasonal rhythms of agriculture” and his belief that sensational plotting should be employed sparingly.

From the complaints listed on the soap’s website though, you could be mistaken for thinking that each episode under Yorke’s tenure had been made up solely of fistfights in the Bull and shootouts on Lakey Hill. Nothing could be further from the truth, but why shouldn’t The Archers strive from time to time to set our pulses racing by indulging in a touch of excitement? The trailers for this week’s ‘Terror at Brookfield’ showdown are thrilling and spine-tingly and I’m looking forward to the episodes enormously.

I think that a lot of this anti-Yorke sentiment boils down to the fact that he earned his spurs on TV, and on EastEnders in particular, a serial upon which Archers fans like to look down their nose. It’s snootiness, of course, mixed in with a concern that the pace of life in Ambridge should be slower than in Walford.

But The Archers shouldn’t be preserved like a fly in amber – reality needs to intrude every now and again because jeopardy is good for the community in any soap. Take Coronation Street, which celebrated its golden jubilee in 2010 by having a tram crash onto the cobbles. Ostensibly, this was an eye-catching spectacle filled with pyrotechnics. But underneath it all was a story about a neighbourhood pulling together in the face of adversity and reaffirming what made it so special in the first place.

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What’s the betting that we find something similar happening in the aftermath of this week’s standoff? Family ties strengthened perhaps, maybe even a rapprochement between the warring David and Elizabeth? John Yorke has done a terrific job of exploring the vulnerabilities of Ambridge’s inhabitants, not just at Brookfield but also through Amy’s emotional bruising from Carl and Hayley’s upset at Phoebe’s extended stay in South Africa. He’s encouraged us to care about them more than ever and made The Archers must-listen radio.