Today I am starting a four-week course of treatment for prostrate cancer. I plan to track the course of the treatment by writing about my favourite radio shows. One radio show for each dose of treatment. Twenty then.
Throughout my life, radio has been an important influence and a place to go for respite from the stresses of everyday life. In the UK, we are very fortunate to have the most amazing BBC Radio 4 (previously the BBC Home Service) which is a companion for many people. Regular presenters become friends. Formats run for decades and attempts to remove them from the schedule are met with protest and outrage. Radio 4 is the anchor; the thing that does not change when everything else in life is in flux
Over the years, it has got easier to listen to radio wherever I am in the world. Twenty years ago, living in Brussels, it was just about possible to tune into the BBC on Long Wave on a real radio set. The reception was not great and highly weather dependent. The advent of radio streaming services changed everything. Now, I can listen to the BBC in a remote anchorage in the Andaman Sea or at home in South Africa.
Over the next month, I will trawl up memories of radio shows from the US, South Africa and elsewhere, but inevitably, I will often return to Radio 4.
For my first treatment, I want to share my love of The Archers. This radio soap started four years before I was born and in normal times features six, thirteen minute episodes each week and an omnibus edition on Sunday mornings. Its characters live in a fictional village, Ambridge, in the English Midlands, where I grew up. The Archer family at the story’s heart are farmers. The programme was originally devised with a public service sub-plot that was designed to communicate with and educate farmers in a post- war Britain that was struggling to adapt to the new world order and feed itself. In recent years, the story lines have broadened to include domestic abuse and gay marriage while still touching on Bovine TB and honeybee colony collapse disorder. The seasons are marked, of course, with lambing, harvesting, ploughing, and hedging.
Each episode is announced by the unmistakeable signature tune “Barwick Green”. The standard arrangement is occasionally varied to play out an especially dramatic episode.
The characters in The Archers tend to have very long lives. Jill Archer has been played by Patricia Greene since 1957. She is 86 in real life and her character is 90.
Joe Grundy, played by Edward Kelsey and two earlier actors, was 98 when he died in 2019. As I remember it, he had an old man’s voice from very early on and he suffered for years with farmers lung, presumably as a result of inhaling hay dust when he was not making cider.
The Archers is a celebration of Midland accents which are often maligned by other Brits; neither northern enough for a Lancastrian nor couth enough for the nouveau riche of Surrey. The rural accent of the West Midlands is softer than those found in the West Country. The urban Birmingham blow-ins have everso slightly sanitised brummie accents, perhaps to avoid putting off the national audience.
Like many soap operas, the pub is at the centre of the drama. Ambridge has The Bull which has followed the development of English hostelries from spit and sawdust to gastropub. The landlords recently employed a consultant who recommended changing the name to “The B at Ambridge”. Needless to say this did not go down well with the more conservative inhabitants and the old name is now back to stay.
That life in Ambridge is a little behind the times is best illustrated by regular appearances of the village cricket team on summer Sunday afternoons, the annual church fete and Linda Snell’s amateur dramatics.
For weeks, in the early phase of the Coronavirus emergency, Ambridge was a CoVid free oasis. Now it has evolved into a series of monologues from the village inhabitants recorded in their homes.
The Archers is a British institution. Listening everyday is preferred but a gap of a few days or even months can be quickly repaired by tuning into a couple of episodes. The pace of change is not rapid.
You can visit Ambridge by downloading the BBC Sounds App..
One down, nineteen to go.