I live in Ambridge. At least a part of me does - my alter ego, David Archer. It's a village that exists in my mind, and in the minds of over four million others. So, it has four million realities. It is therefore the ideal village.
If you're a keen fan; however much you might get annoyed about what goes on there, however much you might disapprove of sex in the shower, or Ruth's breast cancer, Ambridge is always your Ambridge, and it's not like anyone else's.
If you've never heard the programme; it's the longest running series in the world, 50 years old this year, 13 minutes on Radio 4, twice a day and an omnibus on Sunday. I play David Archer, the son of the eponymous parents Phil and Jill. An everyday story of country folk.
It started in 1951 as a 'Farming Dick Barton'. Dick Barton was a derring-do detective and had the nation enthralled. With television in its infancy, radio was enormously influential and post war farmers needed information and support. The Archers replaced the detective with a brief to educate and entertain, hence lines like,
WALTER My word Dan your marrow's looking fine this year.
DAN Well Walter, that'll be down to the ton of nitrate I
spread on it last month.
WALTER Doh. What's nitrate when it's at home then Dan me old pal
me old beauty?
DAN Well Walter, imagine more manure than you've ever dreamed
of, stuffed into a hundredweight bag...
Well not literally...
Over the years it has lost its need to proselytise and until lately it reflected farming activity rather than leading it. Recently though, the programme has had to look at the serious issues of BSE, swine fever, the hunting debate, organic farming, high quality niche meat products, agribusiness, poverty and bankruptcy, and now the quite appalling tragedy of foot and mouth. How the programme has dealt with those issues, you may applaud, denigrate or be entirely ignorant of, but Ambridge represents the imaginary quintessential English village of yore.
It could be a Scottish, Irish, Welsh or Cornish village, indeed the ingredients of this story of a closed society have been copied by radio stations around the world. The Archers has served as a template for communicating important information through drama in programmes in Afghanistan, Russia, Cambodia and Rwanda, as so well reported by my radio wife Ruth, the trapeze trained actress and intrepid reporter Felicity Finch. It is common humanity interacting on a small scale. It's what we all do and it's fascinating - hence Big Brother.
The column is called 'My Village', so let me describe to you how Ambridge looks to me:
Junctions are good. Anything to stop the whoosh of traffic. Villages with whooshing traffic lose the easy common interaction of a community. So many villages are divided by a fast road. I see Ambridge as a slow village, a large green with a duck pond and three winding roads off it (I know there's a map of the place and I'm probably wrong but the whole thing is in my head). I also feel there ought to be some stocks, because stocks have that really serious connection with the past, and they're great to play in when you're small.
The Village Shop cum Post Office is the heart of the village, the meeting place, the gossip centre and indispensable provider of everything-you-forgot-to-get-at-the-supermarket, or the milk that went off in the surprise heat-wave from the Sahara that lasted four days and represents our new globally warmed (i.e. soaked) English summer. Thankfully Ambridge still has one, unlike so many forlorn and shop-less, therefore heart-less villages.
If the shop is its heart, the church is its hearth. Believers and non-believers alike unite in the warmth of a shared commitment to common ideals. This warmth is especially required at Christmas - along with thermals, hand-warmers and a snow plough to get in. For many the prayers may not be addressed to a higher being, but to each other, a concept often alien to the me-first generation, but sharing words and songs, whether in the church, pub or village hall, is an essential part of village life - the believers sharing the comfort of a guiding spirit, the agnostics and atheists happy to share the common morality of 'do as you would be done by'.
It's a shame that Ambridge no longer has a garage. The last one, built on the site of the old smithy, closed over twenty years ago. The villages I've lived in or near have all had the brilliant mechanic who can fix anything for a fiver - who doesn't bother sending off for parts, but has a huge stash of useful bits of metal and rubber with which he can improvise anything from a carburettor float to a ploughshare. I once drove four hours from London to Devon in my beloved VW campervan without a clutch cable, and the garage in Lapford fixed it for me on a Sunday morning using a bit of old fencing wire that was rusting in the back yard. It lasted until I sold the old dear. There's probably some poor Spanish VW mechanic in Pamplona right now trying to explain to a baffled Kiwi why his clutch smells like a cow pat.
Put them all together - the stocks, the green, the pond, the church, the pub, the shop, the garage, the post office, the village hall, the weird bloke who sells absolute rubbish but manages to survive somehow, oh and in an ideal world a working smithy - and you have a community. A community like this thrives upon itself, interacts with itself and becomes at its best a very large family. It is a common worldwide social grouping. Within this large family are recognisable archetypes: The Gossip, The Loveable Rogue, The Villain, The Heroine, The Slattern, The Prodigal Son, The Hero, The Brash Outsider, The Wise Yokel, The Squire, The Spoiled Daughter et al.
Ambridge is a village where very few people use the phone, but keep popping round - usually when we're in the middle of an important conversation with someone else. In fact the only time my character David appeared to have a mobile phone was at the height of the foot and mouth crisis when we were stranded on the farm and couldn't be popped round to anymore. Endless telephone conversations don't make good radio drama. We also have a completely different climate to the rest of the country. Because we record about five weeks ahead of broadcast, we can be enjoying a balmy summer while the rest of the country is under a foot of unseasonable snow.
I once wrote a reggae version of the Archers theme tune called 'Watch Out, They're Listening In' - the idea being that the villagers have been carrying on with their lives before the microphones drop down to eavesdrop on them for thirteen minutes and will continue with their normal lives afterwards. In that sense it is a bit like Big Brother except that it's radio and we've got lines to read and, when you're listening in, we don't swear. I think the BBC is missing a trick here actually, maybe we should have 'Archers Live' on the internet - 24 hrs, uncensored!
When we were taught mime at drama school, the most important lesson was that if you can't see the brick wall, door, beer mug or whatever it is you're trying to suggest, the audience won't see it either. I always feel it's rather the same in radio, we mime with our voices, and if David's looking out over Lakey Hill, dagging sheep, bleeding diesel through a tractor engine or delivering lambs in the snow, it helps if you've done some of it for real, which I have, because what you've actually got is a microphone, an ironing board and some yoghurt.
My imaginary Ambridge is a mongrel, cobbled together from places in my past. When the Archer family still had pigs, in my mind I was in the pig unit at Nettleden Farm, near where I lived as a child. When David is putting up a fence, I remember contract fencing a reservoir outside Watford and also working with my father on the organic smallholding he bought in 1975, when he and my stepmother gave up advertising for a hard life of organic self-sufficiency. That's also where I am in my mind for most things to do with sheep, cows and tractors. Brookfield kitchen is Manor Farm in Brancaster, and the village itself is a strange mixture of Potten End and Aldbury in Herts, Morchard Bishop, Dolton and Lapford in Devon and Docking, Brancaster and Stanhoe in Norfolk.
I was interviewed recently by the extraordinary Lucinda Lambton for her radio programme about the English Village. She was investigating and railing against the creeping standardisation of rural architecture and the dreadful kit houses so beloved of developers that look identical, whether they're built in Cumbria or Cornwall. I think I was on the programme for comic relief, but there were many very serious points made, and hope for the future with an obvious awareness among so many experts of the desperate need for local solutions to local problems, for vernacular building and local materials.
Your Ambridge is your ideal, whatever that may be - mucky working village or twee and tidy, but the wonderful thing is that it's different for all of us. However we are only pinpricks on the map of history and what we build in our villages today, however ghastly, will be looked back on in a hundred years as quaint and picturesque and so turn of the century. The lesson that mustn't be ignored is that we are building an architectural legacy, and if that legacy is to have built houses from kits, as the developers do, then we will turn this country into Legoland within two generations.
My fear is that in the future Ambridge will all look exactly the same for all of us.
Floreat Ambridgae and vive la muck, la mess and la difference.