Six years ago, on a blustery night in January, Nigel Pargetter ignored his wife’s protests and climbed out onto the roof of his stately home in the English countryside. The Happy New Year sign attached to the top of the building had come loose and he was determined to take it down. It was January 2nd, after all, and having lived on the estate all his life he knew the roof like the back of his hand. But he slipped and fell.
Nigel was pronounced dead on BBC Radio 4’s Today program the following morning. Other national news outlets quickly picked up the story, while Radio 4’s More or Less, measuring the length of Nigel’s scream against the estimated height of his home, indulged in conspiracy theories. Online forums were filled with the kind of spontaneous eulogies that had arrived after Princess Diana’s death, as individuals remembered a perfect stranger they were sure had been utterly misunderstood by the establishment: “I wept at your death, and your funeral … one feels so much for Nigel’s ‘family and friends’”; “Am very upset … This will have huge repercussions down the family, because of the potential blame factor, and every Christmas/New Year will be an awful reminder for decades to come”; “I was in love with you (even though I’m a lesbian)—you will be sadly missed.”
Nigel Pargetter was a fictional character in the BBC Radio 4 drama series The Archers, the world’s longest running soap opera and the most popular non-news program on the BBC’s flagship radio station.* Billed as “contemporary drama in a rural setting,” the program follows the daily lives of a farming community in the fictional English village of Ambridge. An episode might involve a husband and wife arguing over their herd of cows, a meeting of the village hall’s curtain committee to discuss new drapes or a grandmother saving the day with a lemon drizzle cake. Every so often, something more dramatic happens.
Nothing comes closer to stereotypical Englishness than The Archers. Like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, The Hobbit’s Shire and Hogwarts in Harry Potter, Ambridge is a fictional place set among real ones. It belongs to the made-up county of Borsetshire, which is nestled between the real counties Worcestershire and Warwickshire, south of the city of Birmingham. Like Platform 9¾, Borsetshire exists; you just have to tune your radio to somewhere between 92-95 FM to find it. It is, as Hardy described his own Wessex, a “merely realistic dream country”: a place that blurs the boundaries between the real and the imagined.
This land, it’s in my blood … If I was to pass in another place, I truly believe my soul would wander the earth in restless torment, forever seeking Grange Farm, its one true home.
The Archers first aired in 1950 as “an everyday story of country folk.” The show began with eight characters and now has over ninety, most of them direct descendants of the original Dan and Doris Archer who lived and worked on Brookfield Farm. Characters come and go, but mostly they stay. Dan and Doris’s children, or their spouses, make up the show’s strong contingent of jolly widows who nightly perform an oral history of the village. Other families have since joined, including the working-class Grundys, who were finally given a central presence in the Eighties. But as befits an agricultural soap opera, the Archers’ family tree remains impeccably pruned.
This generational continuity of characters, as well as the intimate village setting, has fostered a deep sense of familiarity on the part of the program’s listeners. Such devotion is no accident. From the very start, the studio has employed an archivist to record and cross-check every significant event and incident. As well as the ins and outs of each character’s storylines, the archive holds all their likes and dislikes, preferences and opinions. Does Brian like meringue or doesn’t he? What was the exact color of the shoes Jill wore to a wedding in 1973? What was the name of Ruairi’s favorite soft toy when he was young?
As an immigrant child growing up in the suburbs of Manchester, I first heard The Archers after school at friends’ houses and came to identify it by its theme tune. A maypole dance composed by Arthur Wood in 1924, “Barwick Green” is a mess of string and harpsichord that thunders down to transport you into and out of each episode. It sounds rustic and deeply English; if nostalgia had a theme song, this would be it, and if anyone was going to fall victim to it, it was going to be me. I couldn’t be homesick for the country my family had left behind: I didn’t remember it, and anyway it didn’t exist anymore. But I still felt, however dimly, that I was waiting to return somewhere.
In my family it was a successful evening if we had finished dinner by the time the Australian TV soap Neighbours began at 5:37 p.m.; at my friends’ houses The Archers theme song seemed to usher in supper and family time. It was only a matter of an hour or so, but I realized a gulf existed between those time zones, and between what I chose to watch and what I had accidentally overheard. Here is Zadie Smith describing something similar in her novel NW:
A coincidence? Coincidence has its limitations. The DJ on Colin Hanwell’s kitchen radio could not always be between tracks. He could not always be between tracks at the very moment Keisha Blake walked into the Hanwell kitchen. She made enquiries. But Leah’s father, who was at the counter shelling peas from their pods, did not seem to understand the question.
“How d’you mean? There isn’t any music. It’s Radio 4. They just talk.”
An early example of the maxim: “Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”
Radio 4, as Keisha Blake quickly realizes, is broadcast from a world different from the one she—and I—inhabited: the middle class. But what was remarkable to me was not that the station broadcast people talking, but how they talked. It didn’t sound anything like how people spoke in Manchester.
Instead one hears Brian Aldridge and Justin Elliott, whose pompous voices rule over their various business interests. Or Lynda Snell, a yuppie transplant to Ambridge in the Eighties whose now-unmistakable posh sneer has her directing many community enterprises. Or the bumbling, salt-of-the-earth Grundys, always looking for get-rich-quick schemes, their forlorn children struggling to make ends meet. Or the accents of numerous middle-class women: Pat, Jennifer, Elizabeth, Helen, Shula, indecipherable to the untrained ear. Distinct personalities eventually emerge, but for the first-time listener a character’s accent reveals their role in the power structure of Ambridge—and, more broadly, England.
Perhaps this is why I kept returning to a show that I initially found so bemusing. Listening to The Archers, I have learned to understand the customs, neuroses and eccentricities of my adopted culture: how English rudeness masquerades as intense politeness and how snobberies reveal themselves most blatantly in the pettiest of preferences (such as the choice of finger food served at a party). The program might not be representative of the country as a whole but it does capture the English character on a granular level: good intentions misfiring, long-standing resentments, unapologetic gossiping, boring husbands and interfering mother-in-laws.
Over the past year, this “middle England” mindset has come under the microscope. Critics of The Archers would say that it presents a village of provincial white people quibbling over middle-class issues. And listening in the summer of 2016, it was hard not to think: Is this the kind of society “Brexiters” cherish? There are few immigrants in Ambridge. There is a single working-class family, a single gay couple, a single mixed-race marriage. There are no food banks, no long waiting times for the NHS, barely any explicit politics. It is a simple, familiar world.
Brexit was fought and won on the threat of not just immigration but foreignness. The fearmongering ranged from our inability to control immigration, to the number of Syrian refugees entering the country, to fellow Europeans themselves: Why were we sending so much money to them when it could be used for our NHS? (No mention of how much money the E.U. was pumping into Britain.) It was as though Britain was being attacked from all sides by innumerable faces of the Other. No doubt some found solace and refuge in the possibility of a place like Ambridge.
Surprisingly, in this context, I didn’t feel alienated by the Englishness of The Archers. Instead, I increasingly saw something quietly radical, something that I couldn’t help admiring. Ambridge did represent a world that was slowly slipping away, but it wasn’t some parochial world in which people like me had no place. Rather, it was the vestige of a British past that I found deeply appealing. And this year it became clear that the competing historical narratives you could tell about The Archers—a village-green world to which Brexit and Theresa May might return us, or a last living rose of the postwar settlement—reflected a more general struggle in the nation at large.
I’m not sure Ambridge goes in for wars. A minor spat, perhaps.
If nostalgia is a longing to return to the better times of the past, aspiration is a longing to leave one’s past behind, to outrun it. The two are practically opposites, yet it’s curious how much they overlap in questions of English identity. So much of the recent election revolved around which past we wanted to return to, and which one we wanted to escape from: May’s Conservative Fifties, or Labour’s late Forties. Labour’s election slogan, “For the many not the few,” seemed to explicitly harken back to the postwar reforms of Attlee’s Labour government; Jeremy Corbyn was rewarded with a swing in seats to Labour not seen since Attlee’s in 1945. May, meanwhile, operated under a vision of “strong and stable” socially conservative fifties Britain, while her party in government had continued to slash the public services and welfare state that had offered stability to so many for so long.
Although never explicitly mentioned, the aesthetics and ethics of The Archers loom large in Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia, a polemic on the role nostalgia plays in Britain’s relationship with its past. During postwar austerity the Labour government introduced the welfare state, the guarantee of full employment and a huge public housing system. Post-crash austerity has entailed, in Hatherley’s words, “destroying all of these and replacing them with little but scorched earth.” What links the two is borrowed visuals from that previous era, including bunting and mismatched china, but above all those now-ubiquitous posters emblazoned with the words Keep Calm and Carry On. Hatherley writes:
This most recent austerity has nonetheless been overlaid with the imagery of that earlier era. At times this has been so pervasive that it felt as if parts of the country began to resemble a strange, dreamlike reconstruction of the 1940s and 1950s, reassembled in the wrong order.
Seen through Hatherley’s lens, The Archers comes to seem like a manifestation of this spooky reconstruction of England. It’s all there, in the spaces of the program—the village pub, the church, the tearoom selling upcycled furniture; in its events—celebrations for the queen’s birthday, the annual bake-off, pancake-flipping competitions on Shrove Tuesday; and in the ideas at the heart of the drama—community spirit, the importance of family, the just rewards of hard work. Ambridge is exactly the kind of place that Conservatives like Theresa May spring from.
Yet this way of seeing the show squares awkwardly with the fact that Ambridge is, itself, a product of the postwar welfare state that conservatives want to roll back. In fact, The Archers was created as part of the same grand Labour project that included the nationalization of transport and industry and the establishment of a comprehensive, wrap-around welfare state that promised to provide “cradle-to-grave” care for citizens. During the Second World War, rationing had put the nation’s diet in the hands of the government. As the country made its slow transition into peacetime, The Archers was devised as a way of instructing farmers in the methods of agricultural improvement. For a population accustomed to energetic government propaganda, the show was simply an extension of the famous wartime dig for victory posters: entertainment as a form of civic instruction, the BBC in peak “Auntie” mode. And it was a hit: in 1955, twenty million listeners tuned in to hear a landmark episode, nearly half the population.
What the program offers its listeners is continuity with that past—a through line from the period of postwar reforms, which conceived of the country as democratic, egalitarian and compassionate, and installed institutions like the BBC to educate and empower its citizens. The country has changed since then, and The Archers has changed with it, taking on racism, sexism and homophobia, and absorbing diversity within the confines of the village setting. In recent years, storylines have highlighted the lack of affordable housing and the underfunding of social care. The show has also documented the subtle shifts in behavior that reveal the insidious quality of Tory austerity: teenagers deciding not to go to university, a mother taking on a second job at night to support her family.
In its conception, the E.U. shared many of the ideals behind Britain’s postwar social contract: the mutual benefits that arise out of cultural, political and economic integration; the palliative effects of collaboration and a sense of communal purpose. As a document of British rural life, The Archers is a daily reminder of the losses and gains that come from being part of the E.U. Currently, British farmers are the biggest recipients of E.U. funding in the country, taking 61 million pounds a week in subsidies, which protects them from cheaper imports in exchange for control over how their fields are run. Farmers are paid to grow certain things, and not others. British farms rely on seasonal workers from the E.U. in busy periods of the year: cheap labor, on demand. Yet polls show that the majority of farmers voted Leave.
As we leave the E.U., the government will have to decide whether to keep subsidizing farmers. One of the biggest battles of Brexit is set to be fought on British fields, and it will determine everything from what we eat to how the country, 70 percent of which is dedicated to agriculture, actually looks. The Archers has been telling the countryside a story about itself for over sixty years, and for the rest of us it has provided rare insight into a rural landscape from which we are increasingly removed. But as the land changes, so will The Archers—we just don’t yet know how.
We are never far from nostalgia in Britain. During the last year of dramatic upheaval, the country seemed to be asking itself not “Where are we going?” but “To what age do we want to return?” For the Tories, return signaled a kind of stasis: back to austerity, back to looking inward, back to fearmongering in the right-wing newspapers. But Labour’s resurgence under Corbyn has revealed the promise of a different kind of nostalgia: if the country had created the reforms of 1945 even as it was emerging out of war, it could do so again. Progressive politics, too, can find resources in institutions that preserve historical memory.
The Archers, like the U.K., contains two competing histories; in the past year we have been asked to choose repeatedly which one we will accept. At times The Archers has seemed to be on the side of the Tories: an unchanging, unchallenging soap opera, strong and stable Ambridge. But this is to ignore the show’s main characteristic—it is a daily representation of life that, like life, must move onwards—and to neglect its history. The show itself is a product of a more egalitarian politics, and, as the election results recently suggested, we may be longing for a time when radical reforms benefited the many, not the few. But we can only achieve that by reimagining a future for the country, rather than fantasizing about a past to which we can no longer return.
How dare you! … Hustling for business in my garden on the majesty’s birthday.
In 2013, the longstanding character Helen Archer was falling in love with a new arrival, Rob Titchener. All the usual hallmarks of an Archers romance were there: covert flirtatious phone calls, lunches in pubs outside the confines of the village, uncomfortable sighs and kissing sounds coming from the radio. But by 2016, Helen Titchener had just been released from a women’s prison where she was being held with her newborn son, awaiting trial for the attempted murder of her husband Rob. She had stabbed him with a kitchen knife—but we were all willing her to do it.
Over three years The Archers had recorded Rob as his behavior escalated from charming arrogance to coercive control, and as Helen was unraveled by his sly, terrifying domestic abuse. When months of anguish culminated in the dramatic stabbing, the public and media reaction was explosive. Not since the death of Nigel Pargetter had the program been given so much attention, but this time it was different. The response to Nigel’s death had been directed at the drama’s detachment from reality; now it was centered around its accurate depiction of it. The charity Women’s Aid reported a 20 percent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline due to what they called the “Archers effect”; a fundraising page for “the real Helens” raised over 170,000 pounds for Refuge, a charity for victims of domestic abuse; and Michael Gove, then justice secretary, told journalists Helen’s treatment had reinforced the case for prison reform. The Archers had depicted real life, and nobody liked what they saw.
On the Archers forums Helen and Rob dominated discussions, which were now lengthier and more impassioned than ever. Fans wrote heartfelt appeals, gave advice and issued warnings; after all, who knew these characters better than they did? Gradually, though, the conversation started to move on. The weeks progressed, and fans wondered when normal proceedings would resume. They missed the other characters, the village cricket, the bird-watching. As media attention faded, the village began to return to its normal affairs. Winter passed and spring arrived, and then summer. Life went on. And so did The Archers.