When did The Archers go all Eastenders?

Sean O’Connor, the new editor of The Archers recently promised to deliver storylines that are “Shakespearean”, although this one seemed more like something out of Albert Square.

The Archers
BBC Radio 4

It was all Kenton’s fault, I don’t doubt it. When Tom Archer dumped Kirsty in the vestry just moments before they were supposed to exchange vows (24 April, 7pm), it hadn’t been the Ribena spill on her dress that had tipped him, or that his ring had felt too suffocatingly tight when he tried it on in the shop, or even the ominously arty sound of rain on the Ambridge hedgerows the night before, as he agonised his way to Peggy’s house for advice. No, it was Kenton mentioning that on the wedding list Kirsty had specified a “floral teapot”. Which can only mean one thing to the British male: Cath Kidston. Little wonder Tom backed out! There’s nothing more terrifying than a world that starts with cherryade and ends with Brown Owl.

Kirsty’s dumping was met with the sort of howls from listeners that are usually confined to Japanese martial arts classes. I present one slack-jawed text message from my mother, sent seconds after the broadcast: “Who am I what am I where am I?” This was followed three hours later by: “Tom will top himself.”

Although the new editor of the show, Sean O’Connor, recently promised in an interview to deliver storylines that are “Shakespearean”, I confess that Perdita and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale were not the first things that sprung to mind during this particular nuptial meltdown. Kirsty’s cry, EastEnders-ishly relentless, rang down the pews and into Joe Grundy’s ears in a way that could only signal one thing: he was going to have to buy his own lunch at the Bull.

Annabelle Dowler, who plays Kirsty, then bravely took to Twitter for a live Q and A with fans and was soon fielding questions such as: “Who’s the greatest villain – Henry VIII or Tom Archer?” and “Can we . . . slowly burn [Tom] to a crisp like a sausage?” (“A bit harsh!” replied Dowler.)

“Were you not tempted to stray from the script and give Tom a jolly good slap around the face?” asked another. “Think that would have worked quite well on radio.” Dowler’s answer implied that, in truth, the actress was as miffed about this whole turn of events as everybody else. “It would have been a sound engineer doing it,” she wrote, “so I wouldn’t even have had the satisfaction myself!”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder