The announcement on Monday that evergreen Radio 4 soap opera The Archers is to close its official message board has angered a section of the programme's hardcore fans. Use of the online forum had dwindled, says the BBC – but some listeners wonder if the closure has also been prompted by increasing criticism of the show in the past two years or so. Have relations between The Archers and its public broken down?
"The message board has been a tumultuous place ever since Nigel Pargetter died in January 2011," observed Alison Graham, who is Radio Times magazine's TV editor but is also a long-term Archers nut. "There's been quite sharp criticism of the programme but also a lot of direct, personal, and sometimes quite unpleasant criticism of Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn.
"Whitburn is a real hate figure on the boards, particularly as, it’s felt, she never engages with the criticisms of people on there, whereas The Archers encourages people to take to Twitter to talk about the programme. In fact there’s a weekly ‘Tweet-along’ with the Sunday morning omnibus."
Migrating discussion to Facebook and Twitter is indeed the official suggested remedy for listeners disappointed at the message board's closure, which is scheduled for 12pm on Monday 25 February.
Nigel Smith, Radio 4's interactive editor, explained the move in a blog: "The Archers is extremely popular on digital platforms. More than 120,000 users regularly visit the website every week, the podcast is three times more popular now than it was in 2008 with downloads in the millions - and more and more listeners are talking about the programme on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter," Smith wrote.
"Amid that growth, traffic to the message board has reduced greatly. While there are around 10,000 regular visitors to the message board, the number of people who contribute actively has dropped below a thousand. For some time, the BBC has been moving away from message boards."
A petition has been set up asking for the board to be saved, arguing that it "is a source of friendship, solace, companionship, help, advice and support for a great many people and represents a unique online community of the sort the BBC should be fostering, not closing, if it truly wishes to interact with its listeners."
Several listeners posting comments on Smith's blog pointed out that they do not use Twitter or Facebook.
Other responses to the blog from fans have included accusations of "control freakery" and the feeling that the closure is "really because the message board is full of posts deriding the parlous state of The Archers, its poor scriptwriting and awful PC-ridden storylines".
It's perhaps this last point, rather than the upset caused to a relatively small and shrinking section of the listeners who are dismayed at the closure of a web forum, that should worry Whitburn and the Archers team.
Radio Times's Alison Graham agreed that the series is going through uncertain times. "Since Nigel fell off the roof last January it's gone a bit peculiar, culminating in the Brief Encounter homage on Thursday, which was utterly bizarre," Graham said. "Middle-aged lovebirds Lilian and Paul - her partner's brother - at Cheltenham railway station took up pretty much the whole episode. They claim it's a contemporary drama in a rural setting – so why put a knowing spoof of a classic film in there? I didn’t understand what they were doing, making us step out of the drama in such a ham-fisted way."
Thursday's special episode – which was written by Nawal Gadalla, based on an idea by Whitburn – ticked off famous moments from the 1945 David Lean film, including Lilian (Sunny Ormonde, pictured above with Michael Fenton Stevens, who plays Paul) getting grit in her eye and being told, "Try pulling your eyelid down as far as it'll go… and then blowing your nose."
It was met with a highly polarised response from listeners, with some branding it "embarrassing" and "a complete travesty" while others said they "laughed out loud". Most of the online feedback, however, was negative.
One listener wrote of the episode: "They were playing to the audience, inviting us to compare the offering to Brief Encounter. TA is about eavesdropping on supposedly real country life, so to make all those knowing winks (or the aural equivalent) at the listener breaks the fourth wall of the stage and corrupts the illusion. Hence the outburst of anger - we want the illusion not pastiche."
Graham said message board users have been discontented for a while. "The increasing problem with The Archers is that it tackles ‘issues’ and it might just as well sound a ‘social realism’ klaxon beforehand. But then, infuriatingly, everything works out in the end and listeners like me are left thinking, ‘So what was the point of that, then?'
"Before Christmas there was a lot of fuss about a poverty storyline that felt grafted on, involving Emma and her partner Ed. Emma ended up going to a food bank because Ed's business got into trouble and they lost their house. But everything’s fine now. And I enjoyed the build up to the arson at Brookfield Farm - but, despite the hoo-hah and lots of doomy trails on Radio 4, that fizzled to nothing."
Commenting on the closure of the board, one listener wrote: "I can only conclude that the BBC does not like the way certain storylines have been received here."
Alison Graham concluded: "The message board can get joyless and fractious. People get very proprietorial about The Archers, and you want to give them a shake and say: ‘It’s just a radio soap opera, people!’ But I’ve listened for nearly 35 years and I understand how listeners become so devoted while indulging in a bit of gentle mickey-taking at the same time.
"There are a lot of articulate, funny people on the message boards, who obviously love The Archers and are passionate about it in a way they wouldn't be with anything else. Now the board is being shut down out of the blue, and these people feel they have been silenced because they aren’t saying the ‘right’ things."
Controversy dogged the show last year when some storylines were thought by listeners to be too soapy, following the temporary replacement of Whitburn by BBC drama production controller John Yorke when Whitburn took long service leave.
Jane Anderson, Radio Times's radio editor, commented simply: "I wish they had closed The Archers down and kept the message board running. That would have been a real money saver."
What do you think? Has The Archers lost its way? Do the BBC's reasons for closing the message board make sense, or are they a sign that it's tiring of being criticised? Leave a comment and let us know.
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