Latest Archers scandal: death of the author
The Archers poll was shocking not because it concerned abortion but because it asked listeners about narrative.
Producers of soap operas face a dilemma similar to that of dictionary compilers: should one describe the world as it really is, or how you would like it to be?
Just as conservatives and liberals squabble as to whether dictionaries should tell you how to speak or how language is actually spoken, soap writers can choose to portray society truthfully – with all its nuances, grubby violence and moral ambiguity – or use the medium to enlighten and educate. Should we be exposed to nice and attractive, non-smoking, non-racist, non-judgmental characters, as in Hollyoaks, or is it more honest to have on our screens belligerent drunks in the Queen Vic giving each other ‘a slap’ as punishment for being ‘slaaags’ or ‘well out of order’?
This quandary has always been most acute in Britain’s longest-running soap, The Archers. First broadcast on BBC radio in 1951, partially as an educational aid to farmers dealing with postwar rationing, it was always going to have a hard time squaring reality with aspiration. It was first billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ but is now described by the BBC as a ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ – code for ‘not just yokels talking about the price of cheese. Also contains violence, gays and black people.’
This is why the programme consistently annoys its listeners, especially its metropolitan ones, who would prefer the countryside to be depicted as a rustic idyll detached from dreary suburbia. Last week, as reported in the newspapers, many have protested at a ‘tasteless’ BBC internet poll which asked listeners to vote on whether two characters should abort their Down’s syndrome fetus. ‘What a disgusting poll to run’, wrote one listener on the official Archers website. Others called it ‘disturbing and upsetting’, ‘crass’, ‘offensive’ and ‘tasteless’.
Crass, perhaps. But the problem is that the majority of the audience don’t want to deal with real life. That’s not what The Archers is for. It’s like tuning into EastEnders and expecting belly laughs. Ever since John Yorke, a former EastEnders executive producer, took over as BBC’s controller of drama production in June, there have been grumblings that The Archers has got ‘darker and bigger’, just as Yorke promised. Since then, posts on the official site and on the fan site ‘Archers Addicts’ include: ‘I have never listened to The Archers for drama, nerve-wrenching storylines or for worry’, and ‘I turned off The Archers tonight as I just couldn’t put up with the storyline any more… I have a stressful life, I come home with the intention of relaxing’. It was reported last month that within a 12-month period, the show’s audience ratings have dropped from 5.08million to 4.62million, with listeners complaining about ‘sexed up’ storylines and the new plots being ‘ridiculous’ and ‘unrealistic’.
‘Archers fans have been grumbling like this for decades’, noted Francis Wheen in the Independent recently. ‘In September 1955, on the day that ITV began broadcasting, Grace Archer was incinerated while rescuing her horse from a blazing stable. “A silly, cheap, unworthy way of getting BBC publicity”, the News Chronicle thundered. “The men who run The Archers have clearly turned their mission to mirror ‘life’ into a mania.”‘ The Archers has seldom served to adhere to reality.
‘Not enough sex’, said a West Country farmer, when asked by journalist Alice Thomson in 2003 what he thought of The Archers. ‘Or deaths. We’ve got six single mothers in this village and two suicides near here. Everyone’s going out of business. And what about this prostitution? If farmers’ wives are on the game in the West Country, it’s to pay for a second-hand tractor. They don’t do anything like that on The Archers.’
Archers aficionados of an urban, conservative persuasion have always liked to view country living through rose-tinted spectacles. But I do sympathise with viewers annoyed with awkward, laboured attempts to make rural life seem more ‘relevant’ to its metropolitan audience (‘Oo aarr, Oive just uploaded a picture of this ‘ere pig on to Facebook’, etc.) Today, farmers are less likely to talk about the new vicar being a lesbian or not, and – as Thomson pointed out – concern themselves more with the Common Agricultural Policy, supermarket cartels and the weak Euro. Alas, from such matter, great drama is not made.
The BBC has subsequently bowed to calls for the Down’s syndrome vote to be removed from its website (although it maintained that the result would not affect the outcome). ‘The storyline has been well received by the audience and raises a number of important issues’, a spokesman said. ‘However this issue is too complex and sensitive for an online poll and we regret any offence the poll may have caused.’
Aah, those dreadful words: ‘offence’ and ‘important issues’. Television soap operas already pander to our therapeutic age, asking us in the end credits if we have been ‘affected by any of the issues raised in the programme’. Like TV soaps, The Archers sees its remit to ‘raise important issues’, rather than primarily produce a good story. Indeed, one suspects that its producers feel incapable of doing so on their own, and therefore the audience must collaborate in the creation of a narrative. They are seemingly transforming the listener into a consumer, who makes his or her ‘choice’ of ending. Naturally, when the BBC transgresses the code of non-judgmentalism, counterfeit indignation spews forth from laptop keyboards and on to the websites.
The actual question asked on the BBC website shouldn’t be the only issue here. It’s worrying that a poll was posed in the first place. I’m not so much concerned with the potential death of a fictitious fetus, but more with the ‘death of the author’, an insidious idea that suffocates the potential for individual creativity, courage and originality.
Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.