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On-air drama as radio soap 'The Archers' turns 60

As Britons return to work after the New Year, millions are discussing, debating — even mourning — the death of a well-loved character on a long-running soap opera.

That's not unusual — except that the show, "The Archers," has for six decades focused on mostly uneventful lives in an English farming community. Its plots often center on tractor parts, crop rotation and hay thefts. And it's on the radio.

Despite the unglamorous setting and sedate pace, 5 million listeners a week in Britain — and others around the world over the Internet — follow the everyday travails of the landowning Archers, the working-class Grundys and their neighbors in the fictional village of Ambridge: Does that cow have mastitis? How's lambing season going? And how is octogenarian Peggy Archer coming along with her computer lessons?

Inga McVicar, who writes the blog "Pondering the Archers," vividly remembers the first time she heard the show.

"It wasn't a particularly exciting episode," she said. "It was Ed Grundy talking about TB in cows. But there was just something warm and inviting about it.

"You get really passionate about the characters and what happens to them."

"Archers" fans were both excited and alarmed when producers at the BBC announced that the show's 60th anniversary this month would be marked with events that would "shake Ambridge to the core." Theories ranged from a gun rampage by one of the feuding Grundy brothers to a cataclysmic car accident or natural disaster — although producers dampened speculation by ruling out terrorists, earthquakes and Martians.

In the end, listeners on Sunday heard unmarried cheese-maker Helen Archer, pregnant with her first baby through IVF, give birth to a healthy son after an emergency cesarean. At the end of the episode, affable Nigel Pargetter tumbled to his death while trying to remove a Happy New Year banner from the roof of his stately home, Lower Loxley Hall.

Some disappointed listeners pronounced themselves unshaken to the core. But historian and "Archers" fan Keith Flett said the lack of drama — "a bloke falls off a roof and somebody has a baby" — was the essence of the show.

"It's not true that nothing happens in 'The Archers.' It just happens really, really slowly," said Flett, who edits "Ambridge Socialist," a tongue-in-cheek left-wing analysis of the show. "For most people in their ordinary lives, not much happens most of the time. The appeal of 'The Archers' is that it mirrors the pace of people's everyday lives."

Broadcast in six 15-minute episodes a week, "The Archers" has been touched by celebrity. Judi Dench has been a guest star, and Princess Margaret appeared as herself in 1984.

But its charm lies in the long-running, unshowy presence of its characters. Graham Seed played Nigel for 30 years until the character's death on Sunday. June Spencer, now 91, has played matriarch Peggy Archer since the show began in January 1951.

Billed as "an everyday story of country folk," ''The Archers" was intended in part to help educate farmers about modern agricultural methods in the years after World War II. It still employs an "agricultural story editor" to ensure that its details of plowing, harvests and livestock care are accurate.

The show has had its racy moments and serious themes. In the 1990s a shower scene involving the pub landlord and a barmaid prompted outrage in some quarters — even though the nudity was all in listeners' minds. In 2004, the show had its first gay kiss, followed two years later by its first gay marriage, between farmer Adam Macy and chef Ian Craig. It confronted racism when lawyer Usha Gupta moved to the village and later married Anglican vicar Alan Franks.

"Archers" listeners are demanding, quick to complain if stories are too sensational — or too dull. After Sunday's episode many rounded on series editor Vanessa Whitburn, demanding on the show's official message board that she apologize, or resign, for raising false expectations of catastrophe.

Whitburn insisted the plot lived up to the hype, saying the aftershocks from Nigel Pargetter's death would still be rippling through the program in a decade.

The endurance of "The Archers" is a sign of the success of radio in the age of the Internet and high definition TV. RAJAR, the body that monitors radio listenership, reported in October that more than 90 percent of the British population listened to the radio every week, a 2.3 percent increase on the year before.

"The Archers" has managed to embrace new ways of listening — on digital radios, online and through podcasts — while retaining the medium's old-fashioned appeal. In "The Archers" studio, an ironing board makes the sound of a cattle pen closing, cassette tape is trod underfoot for grass and the sound of a lamb being born is produced with a pot of yogurt and a wet towel.

But what listeners cherish most is the sense of community — both in the show and among its fans.

McVicar said the show "harks back to the day where villages were proper communities, where people tended to stay in the area where they were raised."

Many listeners find that community in real life, chatting about the show in person and online. Over the past few days "Shake Ambridge to the core" has been one of Britain's most popular topics on Twitter, complete with its own tag: SATTC.

One Twitter user, Rachael Moore, noted that it was like "1950 meets 2011. We're all sitting around our radios, tweeting."

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Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/the-archers/