What we learned from the first academic Archers conference

 I sat with two of the organisers, debating whether all members of the extended Archer family were insufferably smug. “Pat and Tony can get in the sea,” one of them said, cheerfully.

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Nearly a year after the River Am burst its banks, the residents of Ambridge are still coming to terms with the consequences. Off air, The Archers’ Great Flood of March 2015 caused a lot of speculation about Ambridge’s peculiar microclimate – nowhere else in the country had experienced particularly bad weather – but it also led to something more concrete: the first academic Archers conference, held recently in central London.

Cara Courage, Nicola Headlam and Peter Matthews, academics at the universities of Brighton, Liverpool and Stirling, met through the weekly tweet-along that happens during the Sunday omnibus. In discussing the policy implications of the Ambridge flood, and the plans to build a main road through David and Ruth Archer’s farm – a less sensational but no less protracted storyline – the three researchers discovered how many fans the Archers has in academia. And so they cooked up “The Archers in fact and fiction: Academic analyses of life in rural Borsetshire”, a day of talks exploring every conceivable aspect of the programme, from the village’s community orchard to the radio drama’s representation of medical ethics, social care and domestic abuse.

The event may have been the quickest-selling academic conference in history: tickets were gone within 48 hours, about half of them to fans outside the academy. The biggest contingent came from the Archers Appreciation Facebook group, but representatives from other discussion forums were also present: members of the Archers Anarchists, who insist that Ambridge is real and allow no mention of the words “cast” or “scriptwriters” on their site, as well as a handful of women who had heard about the conference on Mumsnet.

By the time one of the academics giving a paper, Peter Matthews, told me that he was “a bit wet behind the ears”– he’s only been listening to The Archers for a decade! – I could see what he meant. The radio drama turned 65 on 1 January this year, and most of the conference attendees seemed to have been listening for at least half its, and their, lifetime. Throughout the event, I sat in front of the most vocal audience member, who displayed a staggering memory for Ambridge’s obscurer characters and cottages. She wore a silver sheep pendant around her neck, had one colourful shawl around her shoulders and spent the day knitting her way through another. Two rows behind her, another woman crocheted as she listened.

Lyn Thomas, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, gave the keynote speech. Thomas has been researching Archers listeners over the past 20 years, and one of her key findings was borne out by the day: fans love to criticise The Archers as much as they love to praise it. The audience wasn’t too keen on romance in the programme (there were groans when one speaker mentioned the developing relationship between young farmers Pip and Matthew) or on “cute” children (more groans at 2pm, when we paused to listen to the repeat broadcast, and heard Helen’s son Henry chattering about his toy farm). They poked fun at the flood, appearing out of nowhere, and agreed with Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole, whose paper argued that the programme repeatedly sidelines its disabled characters.

As befitted the conference’s full title, a number of talks focused on everyday rural life, in Ambridge and in reality. Dr William Barras from the University of Aberdeen gave one of the most technical papers, charting accent change in Borsetshire over the last 40 years, which led to an involved discussion of the “rhotic ‘r’ ” used by some of the characters. (This is the “r” that gets pronounced in, for example, the word “farm”: farrrm rather than fahm.) Professor Neil Mansfield, whose talk was entitled “Tony’s Troubles: back-pain amongst agricultural workers and design improvements”, warned us that we should expect more farming injuries in Ambridge.

But the papers that drew the strongest response were those about Rob and Helen Titchener. Thomas noted that their story of escalating domestic abuse has pulled in 100,000 extra listeners in recent months, while Helen Burrows, who trains social workers, described using the Titchener marriage to teach her students about real cases of abuse. It was Rob and Helen I heard discussed most often and most anxiously in the tea breaks and at lunch. An envelope went around the room collecting money for the domestic violence charity Refuge, and there was general admiration for the scriptwriters and actors’ handling of the story. The Titcheners made a return in the final paper of the day, which compared their relationship to the plot of Othello. And remember, its author warned, how that story ended.

After some closing words, we traipsed through the rain to the pub – not the pub nearest to the conference venue, but the nearest one that shared its name with The Bull, the pub in Ambridge. We found an empty room upstairs, away from the men in suits drinking after work. The woman with the sheep pendant continued to knit. I sat with two of the organisers, debating whether all members of the extended Archer family were insufferably smug. “Pat and Tony can get in the sea,” one of them said, cheerfully.

A couple of moments afterwards it turned seven o’clock, but everyone was too deep in Archers-related conversation to notice that the latest episode was about to air.

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue