Radio 4's The Archers might look on paper like the least populist soap – with its maypole-dance theme tune and cast of gentlemen farmers, relocated urbanites and straw-chewing, tractor-driving country folk. But it has aired over 15,000 episodes and is followed with religious fervour by fans worldwide. According to the latest Rajar figures, it has put on 400,000 listeners to hit an audience of nearly five million.
The show is different from other major soaps because it has its origins as a public information provider. It started out in 1950 in order to help farmers increase output and put an end to rationing. But despite relinquishing its role as a government mouthpiece in 1972, its themes continue to revolve around rural issues in the public eye.
Storylines on drugs, crime, infidelity, broken homes and homosexuality all feature. But the fact that a national daily drama routinely covers sheep dipping, milk prices and the GM crop controversy means members of the farming community will listen to it just to keep up to date with the things they missed while out milking the cows or mending the combine harvester.
'The Archers is a unique programme in its popular entertainment-style coverage of farming,' says Nexus Communications group client services director Amanda Cryer.
She cites the show's recent coverage of 'Apple Day' and 'Egg Week' as prime examples of its support of producer groups' awareness drives. 'Coverage can generate a vast amount of interest and enthusiasm from the farming community,' she says.
But the show's broad appeal does mean it connects with non-farmers, too.'Three quarters of organic food is sold through supermarkets,' says The Soil Association marketing director Martin Cottingham. 'This means the majority of people who buy organic food have little or no contact with the farmers themselves. The Archers brings the issue of organic farming to life.'
With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that government agencies such as Defra and the Environment Agency are in regular contact with the show.
Defra spokesman Warwick Smith says the writers are proactive and 'tend to call us when they want to check facts, rather than the other way around'.
'That said, they are generally happy to include things from us if we give them a couple of months' notice,' he adds. 'The Environment Agency recently briefed the show about a seasonal risk of flooding. A few weeks later we heard the cast discussing the rising river level and saying they'd "better get on to the Environment Agency".'
Show editor Vanessa Whitburn says the team gets plenty of pitches for coverage, but the writers pick topics 'idiosyncratically', based on what they feel is right for the show's storylines.
'Our archivist produces "what's on" lists for both the show – such as characters' birthdays and events – and the outside world. We reference that with things we've covered before so we don't repeat ourselves too much,' Whitburn explains.
The show's ten writers all liaise with farmers regularly to keep their ear to the ground, but in the end the inclusion of a topic depends entirely on the development of the characters.
Putting the characters first also takes care of any accusations of bias.
'Our aim is to be balanced over time,' says Whitburn. 'Different characters can express strong views from different angles, but in the end the coverage is always fair.'
The show also bends over backwards to make sure its content is up to date – not an easy task given its hectic schedule. Twenty-four episodes are recorded in six intensive days, using only two hours of studio time per 13-minute episode. And none of the actors are full-time.
But, according to Whitburn: 'If a major rural event breaks, then we try to cover it. We once wrote in a story on the hunting ban with literally five minutes to spare, but in the end it depends on cast and studio availability.'
The Archers: topical storylines and last-minute inclusions
British Sausage Week, October 2005
Brian tells Tom he needs to organise something for British Sausage Week. Sausage trade body raises its profile with pig farmers and consumers.
Drugs, Christmas 2004
Heroin addict Luke is found collapsed in the doorway of the church. Due to 'a lack of counselling in rural areas' the vicar decides to try and rehabilitate Luke himself.
Countryside March, 18 March 2001
Cancellation is announced hours after an episode concentrating on the march has been recorded, resulting in a swift rewrite.
Foot-and-mouth, 2 March 2001 Topical scenes are written in over two months on quarantine of farms and the restriction of movement – an 'unprecedented challenge' to the writing team.
GM crops, May 1999
David Archer is punched when confronting a group 'trashing' a field of genetically modified crops owned by Brian Aldridge.
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