Six days a week, dedicated Archers listeners are transported into the Ambridge countryside entirely via the medium of sound. Of course, it all really takes place within the walls of a BBC studio – so just how do they bring that rural setting to life?
In a session at the Radio Times Festival last September, sound technician Andy Partington revealed the sound secrets of The Archers, from shutting a farm gate to a cow giving birth…
Opening a bottle of wine
Sadly, the team don’t have the time or the budget to crack open a new bottle of wine for every take (“parties in the office afterwards would be wonderful” notes Partington) so instead they use an old studio managers’ trick that involves sticking a wet thumb into the top of an open bottle then levering it out again. Simple – and much cheaper.
Opening a bottle of champagne
A contraption consisting of a bicycle pump and a cork creates the sound of the pop, then a soluble vitamin tablet is dropped into a glass of water to capture the fizz. Not quite so tasty as a glass of Champagne but arguably better for you…
Ice in a drink
The Archers studio has to be absolute silent, so the humming sound of a fridge or freezer can’t be allowed. So what do they do if a character wants ice in their G&T? A couple of dominoes clinking together in a glass are surprisingly convincing.
A bird’s wings
“I first did this during the time when Nigel was running his falconry,” says Partington. “I have lots of sound effects recorded of birds but if you’re flying falcons it’s crucial that the actor is heard catching it on the lure and then it flying off and it’s really difficult getting the sound effects on the computer to synch with what the actor’s doing – and it sounds more realistic if it’s done in the studio.”
The solution? A pillow – in a pillow case – folded in half and quickly ‘flapped’ open and closed towards, then away from, the microphone…
Straw and grass
Partington still remembers when quarter-inch recording tape was used for editing the show. “Nowadays we keep it for straw and grass – a little bit of it down on the floor sounds very much like walking on grass – and that also comes into play with the giving birth of the lamb…”
Shutting a farm gate
“The studio’s a limited space – we don’t have room for a farmyard or a tractor or anything else like that in there. We also don’t have room for farm gates.” So what do they have room for? An ordinary folding metal ironing board. “Every time you hear David Archer opening a farm gate, it’s the ironing board…”
Walking on snow
“You could go out and record footsteps,” says Partington, “but then you have the atmosphere of the town or the country where you’re recording around them.” So how do you get the sound of walking on snow in the confines of a radio studio? You take a latex glove, fill it with cornflour and squeeze it. I can confirm that this perfectly recreates that teeth-on-edge noise…
“These starred in the Flood week,” says Partington, holding up a pair of ordinary bath mats. “They’re non-slip on the back so they’re safe to put down in the studio and get actors to walk on. And if you soak them with water they make the most fantastic squelching noise.”
Welcome to the Dead Room… “It has no reflective surfaces so it sounds very much like being outside,” says Partington. “You don’t get all the echo that you get off the walls or the ceiling of a normal room.
“We have a wonderful space in it which is called the snail because it literally curls round in a snail’s shell sort of way. And because all the sides of it have the same acoustic treatment as the walls, you can have an actor standing on one side of it and another actor just a few metres away and if you yelled at the top of your voice, I would just about be able to hear you – it’s that good at soaking up the sound – and that’s what enables us to get the sense of real distance outside.
“There are two points in the Dead Room where two actors can be about four meters apart from each other and you can make it sound like they’re 200 yards away…”
A lamb or calf being born
“I’m going to put an apron on for this,” says Partington before he begins, and it’s soon clear why. “Giving birth to lambs is rather a messy, squelchy business. So the poor spot effects person will be in the studio in their dirtiest clothes with a very wet towel on their shoulder. And they’ll have an industrial quantity of yoghurt…”
While sounds of agitated baaing or mooing are played in the background, the effects person squeezes the yoghurt through their gloved hands to make those squelchy birthing sounds, finally dropping the wet towel onto a bed of old recording tape to simulate the sound of a lamb hitting the straw. And there you have it, the miracle of life.