An Everyday Story of Country Folk
The Archers is a British radio soap opera that has come a long way since its launch in 1950 by Godfrey Baseley. Starting as a pilot series of five episodes, it ran for a week starting from 29th May 1950. Initially, broadcast to the English Midlands, once the BBC got hold of the recordings, they decided that they wanted to run with it nationally. Since then, nearly 20,000 episodes have been aired, and it is the world’s longest-running radio drama.
The programme was initially billed as an everyday story of country folk and now as a contemporary drama in a rural setting. At the start, the farm was called Wimberton but has since changed to Brookfield. The programme name, ‘A Farming Dick Barton’ later became ‘The Archers.’
To say that The Archers is popular is an understatement. In February 2019, a panel of 46 broadcasting industry experts listed The Archers as the second-greatest radio programme of all time. Partly established to educate farmers following World War II, The Archers soon became a popular source of entertainment for the population at large, attracting nine million listeners a day by 1953.
One thing led to another, and the BBC moved the timing of The Archers to 6:45 in the evening to allow more people to tune in to the program. Back then, it ran five times a week, featuring episodes that were fifteen minutes long. The time was cut to 12½ minutes in 1998. In 1964, BBC realised that the demand for the show was huge, and they began airing repeat shows on the subsequent afternoons to help people catch up on the dramatic episodes. Before then, listeners could catch up by listening to the weekly omnibus edition.
The original scriptwriters were Geoffrey Webb and Edward J. Mason, who were also working on the nightly thriller series about the special agent Dick Barton. The popularity of Barton’s adventures partly inspired The Archers, which eventually took over Barton’s evening slot. At first, however, the national launch placed The Archers’ serial at the ‘terrible’ time of 11.45 am, but it moved to Dick Barton’s former slot of 6.45 pm from Monday, 2nd April 1951. An omnibus edition of the week’s episodes began on Saturday, 5th January 1952.
The Archers’ story is set in the fictional village of Ambridge in the (again fictional) county of Borsetshire, in England. Borsetshire is situated between what are, in reality, the contiguous counties of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, south of Birmingham in The Midlands. Ambridge is possibly based on the village of Cutnall Green, although various other villages claim to be the inspiration for Ambridge. The Bull, Ambridge’s pub, is modelled on The Old Bull in Inkberrow, whereas Hanbury’s St. Mary the Virgin is often used as a stand-in for Ambridge’s parish church, St. Stephen’s.
The Archers Characters (or rather, some of them)
It’s a long story, so please try to keep up. To make it easy, it’s only a fraction of the story and focuses only on part of the Archer family…
Jill Archer née Patterson (born 3 October 1930) (Patricia Greene) is the widow of Phil Archer and matriarch of the family. She was his second wife, and with him had four children: twins Shula and Kenton and David and Elizabeth. She is busily involved in village life and supports her children by taking on child-minding duties. Jill is an active member of the Women’s Institute, opened up a holiday cottage business, and is teaching her grandson, Josh, how to keep bees.
Jill has a less traditional outlook on life than her late husband, who had been a Justice of the Peace, reflected in her opposition to both fox hunting and private education. Following a burglary at Glebe Cottage, she was asked by David and Ruth to return to Brookfield, which subsequently became permanent. In 2019, she surprised her family by announcing that she had met a new man – Leonard Berry, a widower who she met while visiting the Laurels. Since then, Jill and Leonard have enjoyed a cosy companionship, complicated slightly when Leonard thought Jill wanted them to get married – when she made it clear that she had no desire to have another husband, they happily resumed their relationship.
Christine Barford née Archer, formerly Johnson (born 21 December 1931) (Lesley Saweard, previously played by Pamela Mant and briefly Joyce Gibbs), is the younger sister of Phil. A skilled horsewoman, she ran the local riding stables for many years. In the early 1950s, she was a close friend of Grace Fairbrother, who later married Lesley’s brother Phil. Christine married Paul Johnson; it was discovered she was infertile, and they adopted a son, Peter.
In the mid-1970s, Paul deserted the family, and he was later killed in a helicopter crash in Germany. In 1979 Christine married George Barford, a gamekeeper, which was seen as a class transgression, even though her uncle, Tom Forrest, was also a gamekeeper, and colleague of her future husband. Her marriage to George lasted over 25 years and was happy, but latterly they experienced difficult times as their house burned down due to an arson attack by Clive Horrobin. George died peacefully whilst they were waiting for the house to be re-built. Christine lived with Peggy Woolley for some years but in 2018 suffered a fall and went into The Laurels initially for respite but is intending to take up a place in an assisted living flat. She lost her capital in a fraud perpetuated by associates of Matt Crawford.
Peggy Woolley, née Perkins, formerly Archer (born Margaret Perkins, 13 November 1924) (June Spencer, briefly played by Thelma Rogers), is the widow of Phil’s elder brother, Jack Archer, and Jack Woolley. When married to Jack Archer, they managed (and later owned) the Bull. After many years of close friendship, Peggy married Jack Woolley. Peggy has two daughters, Jennifer and Lillian, and a son, Tony, by her first husband. She is indulgent of her grandchildren and has provided several of them with significant financial support. Although she was something of a left-wing firebrand in her youth, she is now very conservative, living in The Lodge, which was the gatehouse for Grey Gables.
Jennifer Aldridge, (née Archer, formerly Travers-Macy) (born Jennifer Elizabeth Archer, 1945) (Angela Piper) is the older daughter of Peggy Archer (and step-daughter of Jack Woolley). She is married to Brian Aldridge.
That whistlestop ‘tour’ comes from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Archers_characters, where there’s much more waiting for you to catch up on. Angela Piper joined the cast of The Archers in June 1966. She featured in an article on 19th December 2020 (page 58) in the Telegraph Magazine, in which she said: “Part of the show’s magic is that it’s comforting, like an old pair of carpet slippers.”
For Archers Addicts
What was the “real” reason why Grace Archer was killed in 1955? What happened to Doris Archer’s secret sister? Why did radio chiefs complain about Dan Archer’s “indelicacies?” What was the plot that nearly killed Peggy Archer? Who threatened resignation over Shula’s sex life? Why was Princess Margaret unhappy at Grey Gables?
Characters and Setting
- The Archers‘ family farm, Brookfield, combines arable, dairy, beef, and sheep. It is a typical example of mixed farming which has been passed down the generations from Dan, the original farmer, to his son Phil and is now co-owned by Phil and Jill’s four children: David, who manages it with his wife Ruth; Shula Hebden-Lloyd, owner of the riding stables, was married to Alistair, a vet; her twin Kenton, runs the village’s only pub with his wife Jolene; and the widowed Elizabeth Pargeter. Jill lives in Brookfield with her son David, his wife Ruth, Pip, Josh, and Ben and Pip’s daughter, Rosie.
- The Aldridges at Home Farm. Brian, who is portrayed as a money-driven agribusinessman and his wife, Jennifer. They have five children: the two Jennifer brought into their marriage: Adam, a farmer married to chef Ian Craig and Debbie a farmer based in Hungary; two born into the marriage, Kate with a family abandoned in South Africa, and Alice married to farrier Chris Carter; and schoolboy Ruairi, Brian’s son by one of his affairs. The family also includes Kate’s daughter Phoebe and Jennifer’s sister Lilian.
- The Bridge Farm Archers practise organic farming. Their operations include a farm shop, a farm café, a vegetable box scheme and a dairy. Tony and Pat’s children are Helen and Tom, and their three grandchildren: Johnny, who is the son of their dead son John; and Helen’s sons, Henry and Jack.
- The Pargetters, a landed gentry family who need to make their stately home, Lower Loxley Hall, pay the bills as a public attraction. The family includes Nigel Pargetter’s widow, Elizabeth née Archer, her son Freddie and his twin sister Lily.
- The Grundys, formerly struggling tenant farmers, brought to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as comic characters, are now seen as doggedly battling adversity.
- The Carters, Neil and Susan. Their son, Chris, is married to Alice Aldridge; their daughter, Emma, has successively married brothers Will and Edward Grundy.
- The Snells: Lynda, married to the long-suffering Robert, is the butt of many jokes, although her sheer energy makes her a stalwart of village life.
- Arkwright Hall is a large Victorian mansion with a 17th century atmosphere. The building served as a community centre for many years, containing a soundproofed room and field studies centre. Later it fell into disrepair but was renovated when Jack Woolley leased the mansion to the Landmark Trust; architect Lewis Carmichael led the restoration of the building to its Victorian splendour.
- Bridge Farm is a 168-acre (68 ha) farm previously on Berrow Estate but now owned by Pat and Tony Archer. The farm became wholly dedicated to organic farming in 1984, in a storyline inspired by a scriptwriter’s visit to Brynllys farm in Ceredigion, the home of Rachel’s Organic. In 2003, Tom Archer began producing his Bridge Farm pork sausages. In early 2013, the family decided to sell their dairy herd and buy organic milk instead, and the following year, Tony Archer bought a small Aberdeen Angus herd.
- Brookfield Farm is a 469-acre (190 ha) mixed farm which was managed by Dan Archer and then by his son Phil. After Phil’s retirement in 2001, his son David Archer took over.
- Grange Farm was a working farm run by the Grundys until their eviction in 2000. The farmhouse, along with 50 acres (20 ha) of land, was sold to Oliver Sterling.
- Grey Gables, once a country club, is now a luxurious hotel. The late Caroline Sterling bought it with her husband, Oliver Sterling. The hotel boasts a pool, spa, health club and a golf course. Ian Craig is the executive chef.
- Home Farm is a 1,922-acre (778 ha) farm, by far the largest in Ambridge, owned by the Aldridge family. In recent years, Home Farm expanded into soft fruit and deer farming.
- Lower Loxley Hall is a large 300-year-old country house located just outside Ambridge. It serves primarily as a conference centre.
- The Bull, the village’s only pub, is perhaps the most recognisable structure in Ambridge
- St. Stephen’s Church, established in 1281, dates back to Norman times. The church has undergone many changes over the years, including several different vicars. The eight bells are rung by a group led by Neil Carter.
- Ambridge still has a village shop and post office, originally thanks to Jack Woolley’s philanthropy. The business is now a community shop managed by Susan and run by volunteers.
- Willow Farm is owned by the Tucker family. After Betty died in 2005, the house was divided to accommodate Roy and his family. The farmland is home to Neil Carter’s pigs.
The actor Norman Painting played Phil Archer continuously from the first trial series in 1950 until his death on 29th October 2009. His last Archers performance was recorded just two days before he died and was broadcast on 22 November. He is cited in Guinness World Records as the longest-serving actor in a single soap opera. Under the pseudonym “Bruno Milna”, Painting also wrote around 1,200 complete episodes, which culminated in the 10,000th episode.
June Spencer CBE has played Peggy Woolley from the pilot episode and celebrated her 100th birthday in 2019. She is still in her role and is one of the oldest working actors.
According to Who’s Who in The Archers 2008, episode 15,360 was broadcast on 1st January 2008. Episode 15,000 was broadcast on 7th November 2006.
The Archers reached its 60th anniversary on 1st January 2011, and to mark this achievement, a special half-hour episode was broadcast on Sunday, 2nd January, on BBC Radio 4 from 7 pm.
Many famous people have made cameo appearances on the programme:
- Princess Margaret and the Duke of Westminster appeared in 1984 in connection with a fashion show to commemorate the centenary of the NSPCC
- Dame Judi Dench made an appearance as the (hitherto usually silent) Pru Forrest in 1989 for the 10,000th episode. Terry Wogan was featured, and Esther Rantzen was responsible for the sound effects.
- Radio presenter John Peel appeared as himself in 1991.
- Gardener Alan Titchmarsh judged Ambridge’s entries in the National Gardens Scheme open gardens competition in May 2003.
- Radio presenter Chris Moyles appeared in June 2004 as a random customer—and suspected National Pub of the Year judge—in The Bull.
- Comedian Griff Rhys Jones appeared as himself in July 2004, when he was drafted into Lynda’s campaign to restore the Cat and Fiddle pub.
- Zandra Rhodes played herself in an episode in September 2006 in connection with a charity fashion show.
- Robert Winston appeared as a fertility specialist consulted by Hayley and Roy Tucker in January and February 2007.
- Cricketer Mike Gatting appeared in September 2007 at the centre of a misunderstanding between Sid and Jolene Perks during the Npower Village Cup final at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
- Crime novelist Colin Dexter made a cameo in 2010.
- Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, appeared on 16 February 2011 in connection with the National Osteoporosis Society’s 25th anniversary and the show’s 60th anniversary.
- In 2011, a recording of the show Gardeners’ Question Time was followed by a special recording session in which Archers characters, notably Brian Aldridge, asked questions of the regular panellists while sitting with the audience.
- Sir Bradley Wiggins appeared in an April 2014 episode, presenting prizes at the Ambridge Sport Relief Rough and Tumble event Challenge.
- Kirstie Allsopp appeared in July 2014 to open the village fete.
- In August 2014, the Pet Shop Boys were last-minute headliners at the music festival Loxfest.
- Anneka Rice has appeared twice in Ambridge; in March 1993 and in March 2016.
- In September 2016, in an hour-long episode concluding a highly publicised storyline in which Helen Titchener had stabbed her abusive husband Rob, some notable names guest-starred as jury members, including Dame Eileen Atkins, Catherine Tate and Nigel Havers.
- In August 2021, Jackie Weaver, a council officer in the news, appeared as herself, judging a scarecrow competition in the village and warning off some protestors.
- Others who have made appearances include Britt Ekland, Humphrey Lyttelton (1956), Dame Edna Everage and Antony Gormley (2009).
List of Books and Audiobooks
- Forever Ambridge — 25 Years of The Archers (1975) by Norman Painting ASIN B0012UT8XM
- The Book of The Archers (1994) by Patricia Greene, Charles Collingwood and Hedli Niklaus ISBN 0-7181-3849-X
- The Archers: The True Story (1996) by William Smethurst ISBN 1-85833-620-1
- The Archers Encyclopaedia (2001) by Joanna Toye and Adrian Flynn ISBN 0-563-53718-3, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of The Archers
- Who’s Who in The Archers 2008 by Keri Davies. ISBN 1-84607-326-X
- Who’s Who in The Archers 2011 by Graham Harvey. ISBN 978-1-849-90015-7
- The Archers Miscellany (2010) by Joanna Toye. ISBN 978-1-84607-754-8
- The Road to Ambridge (2010) by June Spencer. ISBN 978-1-907532-25-2
- The Archers Archives (2010) by Simon Frith & Chris Arnot. ISBN 978-1-84990-013-3
- Borsetshire Life (2011). The county magazine. ISBN 978-1-902685-14-4 see borsetshire-life
- The Archers by Jock Gallagher
- Ambridge Summer by Keith Miles (1975). ISBN 0-85523-065-7
- The Archers: To The Victor The Spoils (1988). ISBN 0-563-20599-7
- The Archers: Return to Ambridge (1988). ISBN 0-563-20606-3
- The Archers: Borchester Echoes (1988). ISBN 0-563-20607-1
- The Archers: Omnibus Edition (1988). ISBN 0-563-36001-1
- The Ambridge Chronicles by Joanna Toye
- The Archers 1951–1967: Family Ties (1998). ISBN 0-563-38397-6
- The Archers 1968–1986: Looking For Love (1999). ISBN 0-563-55125-9
- The Archers 1987–2000: Back to the Land (2000). ISBN 0-563-53701-9
- The Archers 1951–1967: Family Ties (1998, audiobook, narrated by Miriam Margolyes). ISBN 0-563-55714-1
- The Archers 1968–1986: Looking For Love (1999, audiobook, narrated by Stella Gonet). ISBN 0-563-55813-X
- The Archers 1987–2000: Back to the Land (2000, audiobook, narrated by Stephanie Cole). ISBN 0-563-55818-0
- In 1975, Tandem published a prequel novel about Ambridge in the early 1900s
- Spring at Brookfield by Brian Hayles (1975). ISBN 978-0-426-16520-0
Sources and Further Information
- The Archers on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BBCTheArchers
- The Archers on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bbcthearchers
- Download Episodes: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qpgr/episodes/downloads
- A Selection of Characters: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/3VLG6MxxfQpKXF2Chky4Fmh/characters
- Stories and features about The Archers: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5Mstn5KJJpgnH4Rd3SYHHSK/stories-and-features-about-the-archers
If you are an Archers addict, you may want to read The Archers: The History of Radio’s Most Famous Programme 50th Anniversary Edition Paperback – 11th May 2000, by William Smethurst (Author), available from Amazon here.
- The top five ‘greatest radio programmes of all time’ chosen by the panel was (1) Desert Island Discs, (2) The Archers – the UK’s longest running radio drama, (3) Radio comedy Round The Horne (1965-8), (4) Hancock’s Half Hour (1954-9) and (5) In The Psychiatrist’s Chair (1982-2001). ↑
- From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Archers ↑
- Ibid. See also: List of fictional towns and villages at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_towns_and_villages ↑