Catherine Lillington discovers how the goings-on down in Ambridge make their way from a scriptwriters’ imagination into the hearts of the nation.
For 60 years, the fictional village of Ambridge, home of The Archers, has been brought to life in a BBC studio in Birmingham.
Its tales of rural life, farmyard sounds and an instantly recognisable, jaunty theme tune air in the homes of almost five million listeners a week.
What started out as a way of educating farmers in post-war Britain how to yield better crops has now become the longest-running soap in the world.
As rationing crept into the start of the 1950s the Government was desperate to improve production. Programmes were broadcast by the BBC but they failed to grip the farming community.
Then Godfrey Baseley, inspired by his upbringing in Alvechurch, south of Birmingham, had the idea of making the drama.
Characters’ lives play out in real time, in daily 13-minute episodes. Although their stories are no longer what scriptwriter Keri Davies describes as informative “sugar-coated medicine” they still stay true to their setting.
BSE and foot and mouth disease have featured, the struggling village shop was taken over by the community and farmers have faced bankruptcy.
Mr Davies, who lives in Kings Norton, said: “Human beings have a deeply-held need for narrative, to be told stories and The Archers is actually a really modern way of getting a story.
“It’s really short and you can consume it almost anywhere with podcasts, BBC iPlayer and a radio set is still cheap and portable. It still fits the modern life extremely well.”
Mr Davies said a team of nine writers try not to dwell on the show’s status as a national institution. The important thing we try and do is just tell good stories that ring true,” he explained.
“Our listeners don’t expect sensation all the time, they prefer it when a story is told in real time.
"The episode on tonight represents this real day, Christmas is on Christmas Day and if someone’s pregnant it takes nine months. It does mean we can tell a story over many years if a story justifies it.
“One of the effects is it becomes a small but significant part of a listener’s life.
"They can remember a character being born, growing up, fighting with their parents, going to college, getting their first job, getting old and dying – all the landmarks you see in real people all around us.
“It’s not like the olden days when people thought the Archers were real. In the 50s people would send birthday cards and knitted presents when babies were born.
"But they enjoy it, I suppose it’s like having gossip. This gives you a group of people you can observe, judge and tut tut about without doing any harm.”
Hedli Niklaus, who has played Kathy Perks for the last 27 years, also heads the Archers Addicts fan club of about 5,000 members. She said of the loyal listenership: “They think they own all of us. People have created really strong physical identities for the characters. I was once asked ‘why haven’t you got dark hair?’ You get things said like ‘last night I heard Phil Archer say he wanted scrambled egg but in 1973 I remember distinctly he told Jill he only liked them poached’.”
The picture of Ambridge and its inhabitants that listeners imagine emerges as soon as actors leave the green room, she adds.
“People slip on their characters like coats,” she said. “I’ll be having a chat with Patricia Gallimore who plays Pat Archer but in the studio it is like someone switches a button and all the characters from Ambridge are alive and there.”
The actor, from Stratford-upon-Avon, joins her cast to record four episodes a day, six days a month.
She says: “It’s like having another personality, for me it was great. Kathy did all the healthy eating, the jogging, had a totally painless birth, she also had an affair which taught me they aren’t worth all the agony, so I never did.”
She remembers her first outing into the fictional village was “absolutely terrifying”.
“You pipe up with a new voice and a new character and it sounds very thin,” she says. “You don’t really know what it is you’re playing, it does take time to grow a character and grow a following. A writer once told me it was much easier to create a character than kill them off.
“Once they’re there they have a place in the public psyche.”
The show’s makers are confident it can hold onto that place for another 60 years.
“What Godfrey Baseley conceived of with this was a stroke of genius,” said Mr Davies. “When the first episode was broadcast nationally they thought it might last for a few months, they had no idea it would still be going 60 years later.
“If we continue to keep it up-to-date and keep telling good stories about interesting characters, there’s every reason we can continue for many more decades.”