I have, I confess, listened to a good proportion of the 17,930 editions of The Archers; some of my earliest memories date from the 1950s when we clustered round our Pye radio set each evening to hear the latest developments from the see of Felpersham.
I was delighted, therefore, when in the early 1980s, as a BBC publicist, I occasionally deputised during holidays on the Radio 4 patch. That meant writing the weekly Archers’ programme blurb for the press and sometimes taking part in press launches. I got to meet the faces behind the Ambridge voices. And a wonderful group of people they were, too – some going back to day one in 1950.
For many years the Archers Omnibus was a fixed point in my life, an oasis on Sunday mornings of a unique brand of gentle escapism that had just enough relation to reality to have validity and resonance.
Then, in 1991 Vanessa Whitburn took over as producer. It was an earthquake in Borsetshire; its landscape and texture changed forever. Gone was a gentle reflection of English rural life where the only vague echoes of national politics and tensions were between the comfortably-off Archers and the working class Grundies.
In its place was a politically charged, politically correct nowhere-land. The only certainty was that BBC values were at its core. Gay issues and female exploitation cheek-by-jowl with village produce and WI jam. I increasingly found myself switching off, or rather, not switching on.
Spooling forward to this week, the BBC publicity machine has gone overboard about the stabbing by Helen Tichener (nee Archer) of her monstrous husband Rob. After two years of physical and mental abuse and humiliation at his hands, Helen snapped – and brutally stabbed him.
He, it turned out, has survived. But I fear those knife blows have slain elements of Ambridge forever. The process set in train by Whitburn has reached its inevitable sad nadir.
The Archers is now a BBC drama like any other BBC drama, with all its flaws.
Exhibit A is the BBC website story about the Tichener stabbing. Clearly, the BBC believe they have written and broadcast a definitive guide to domestic violence that is at the highest level of public service broadcasting. Of this, there can be no doubt – it is evident throughout in the serious, smug, self-congratulatory, worthy tone.
All the stops have been pulled out: a special chart detailing the incidents that made Helen so desperate; links to charities that can help those trapped in similarly grim situations; and a special note that already, Archers fans have contributed thousands of pounds to a Facebook appeal linked to the stabbing that will go to the real-life charity Refuge.
What’s not to like? The problem is that this was not a real stabbing, this was not real domestic violence and it was committed inside the BBC values bubble. That means that, despite the BBC’s claims, this was not an authentic portrayal of domestic violence – it was the BBC’s Ambridge version, entirely dominated by the values of right-on feminism, with all the attendant dangers.
Erin Pizzey, the veteran domestic violence campaigner who set up the world’s first refuge for abused women in 1971, spells out exactly why under the headline ‘This plot could drive more women to kill’. She points out that the Archers’ plot line is stereotypically feminist, with the man painted as the one dimensional villain; a monster who deserves all he gets, including stabbing. She states:
‘The Archers sends out a simplistic, untruthful version: a black-and-white picture of one goodie (female) and one baddie (male). No one has ever asked in The Archers why Rob is doing what he does, apart from suggesting his manipulative mother is a factor. If the programme’s writers had seriously studied the issue, they would have explained that Rob’s terrible desperation to control Helen came from his own neediness; that this sort of man is totally dependent on his victim.
‘But that wouldn’t have been sensationalist enough. Instead, they came up with a fantasy storyline that will have one big, unexpected, unwelcome result: the continued demonisation of men and another supposed victory for the feminist movement. The pendulum has swung way too far against men. The storyline in The Archers sustains the old lie that it is only men who commit domestic violence, and we must always look at women as victims.’
And there we have it. The alliance of BBC soap – for that is what since Whitburn, The Archers has become, is a toxic mix that promotes the wrong messages, in the wrong ways inside politically correct agendas. It has become the enemy of true understanding.
During the referendum, News-watch is monitoring almost all of the BBC’s news output for pro-EU bias. If you spot any examples, you can register them at a special website: www.bbccomplaints.com.
News-watch research is at www.news-watch.co.uk.