Sunday, January 16, 2011

Calder on Air: The Archers and EastEnders

My column from Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

Same old, same old

England didn’t just retain the Ashes in Australia with three innings victories: they retained the Ashes with three innings victories, every one of which was clinched during the shipping forecast. You could hear those vital overs described in plenty of other places, but there was still something wonderfully old-fashioned about the way the Radio 4 announcer’s voice broke in with “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency...” and the latest news from South Utsire.
Another Radio 4 institution was on less sure ground over Christmas as poor Nigel Pargeter was tipped off the roof at Lower Loxley to mark the 60th anniversary of The Archers (Radio 4). For a day the nation held its breath, hoping that the blameless Nigel had landed on one of the less popular characters like Helen or Shula, but it was not to be.

They have an odd way of marking birthdays in Borsetshire, and I wonder if this heartless culling was such a good idea. You can argue that it was necessary to refresh the cast and introduce dramatic tension, but freshness and tension is not what Archers’ fans are after. We listen because we want things to remain the same.

Incidentally, one of my Liberal colleagues when I was on Harborough District Council remembered hearing the very first episode of The Archers as a small boy. As it was broadcast in the Dick Barton slot, he had been confidently looking forward to a series about Robin Hood. He was disappointed to be presented with “an everyday story of country folk” and had held a grudge against the programme ever since.

Another popular soap has also got itself into trouble through a controversial story line, though it being EastEnders (BBC1) it involved far more than someone falling of the roof. In fact, that’s an everyday occurrence in Walford: it’s best to keep a weather out for falling minor gangsters if you have to walk the streets there.

So the writers went in for a saga involving a cot death and a swapped baby. Like most of EastEnders it was pretty tasteless, but its defenders will say it is a drama and is entitled to be as tasteless or improbable as it chooses.

Except that EastEnders has traditionally taken itself extraordinarily seriously. Back in the 1990s, when Joe Wicks was afflicted with schizophrenia to jolly things along, the programme’s editor announced: “Because it has a continuing storyline, EastEnders was able to look at the effect that schizophrenia has on a family and on individual relationships. I wanted to humanise it and look at the emotional impact it has on people.”

And it has been taken seriously too. The National Schizophrenia Fellowship said: “People could watch Joe going through the motions. We showed things were not so bad and how you could get help. There is so much misinformation about schizophrenia with the media focusing on extreme cases. And Joe was a handsome young man, not a spotty loner. He showed that schizophrenia can happen to anyone and made it easier for people to talk about it.”

In those days – the early days of New Labour – EastEnders was practically an arm of government. Every charity and pressure group dreamed of persuading it to run a story that touched upon their pet cause. Today it is just another soap opera – and that is a relief for all of us.


Toast, Just William, Upstairs Downstairs. And, though a Morecambe and Wise show was out of the question, there was still a drama about their rise to fame.

You could dismiss Christmas television as lone long nostalgiafest. Certainly, there was a colossal amount of attention paid to period detail in the costume and furnishings. But quarrying into our national past is one way of seeking to understand the present – and a more promising one than that offered by EastEnders.

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