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When the lockdown came to Ambridge

The Archers is "corona-proof" because it can't get any more boring than it is already. Fans simply cannot lose.   

By Antonia Quirke

Light to stage left. Tracy Horrobin speaks.

And so it finally came to pass that all episodes of The Archers recorded pre-lockdown petered out, and new ones commenced (from 25 May, 7pm), comprised entirely of separate monologues recorded on portable devices by the actors themselves. In a cryptic interview the show’s editor promised results “more like vodka shots than a pint of beer”. Lynda Snell speaking from deep within her coma a la The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? Meanwhile, a friend reassured me that of all the BBC’s shows, The Archers was “corona-proof” because “it could not be any more boring than it is already. Fans simply cannot lose.”

Still, what eventually unfurled was very strange. Characters bitching endlessly about each other. Interminable agricultural sound effects: groaning tractors and angry cows, slathered like distracting mayonnaise all over Ruth’s terrible lasagne. (“Why did I say yes to it tonight?” mourned David in an altogether weirdly lasagne-orientated first episode.) In another edition, Tracy (Susie Riddell, by now doing full Vicky Pollard) beat Harrison to the cricket captaincy (“but what happened to all the fit men?”).

Brian Friel’s Faith Healer it wasn’t. It’s early days, but the sheer lack of inner life demonstrated verged on the avant-garde. But, look, the whole DIY programme recording isn’t easy. I’ve been doing it myself since lockdown, at first in the middle of the night to minimise outside noise, in a mocked-up studio piled with furniture, my boyfriend lying prone in the other room, enduring me fluff endless takes into an omnivorous stereo mic. (Ten weeks in, there came an inevitable need for literally any sort of tonal shift. Record outside! Work birds and builders and  illegal barbecues into the script!)

Anyway, as for Home Farm… I’m in the process of accepting what has since 1951 been implied but ignorable: that these people do not have a hinterland. The Archers is basically The Truman Show. Its personalities can only have depth up to a certain point, otherwise it would be positively disrupting, and they’d probably all turn out to totally hate farming, and Ambridge. And which of us is ready for that? 

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This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe