Warning! this post may seem both tedious and incomprehensible to anyone who is not an Archers fan . . .
I arrived home from work yesterday to find that a thrilling package had turned up in the post. On opening the envelope, the mere words “Ambridge DK and chunky,” were enough to send me into hysteric raptures. Tom could get no sense out of me for quite some time. “Look!” I shrieked, “check out Christine Barford in her horse-themed intarsia!” Ravelry really is an amazing thing. Last week, on the lively Archers’ discussion board, Woolhemina mentioned that she had six copies of a booklet of patterns featuring the characters of everyone’s favourite long-running BBC radio soap clad in delightful ’80s knitwear. I was lucky enough to score the last one. Life may never be the same again.
(Conservative prig, Shula Hebden Lloyd, sports an appropriately hideous tyrolean / intarsia combo whilst wolfing down Granny P’s ginger snaps)
I am not ashamed to say that I am a long-time Archers listener. I became obsessed with it while completing my first University degree. I well recall preparing for exams while being gripped by Clive Horrobin’s notorious raid on the village post office and Susan Carter’s subsequent imprisonment (oh, that she might have stayed inside!). I didn’t own a TV until 1999, and till then, my sole source of frothy-narrative-pleasure came courtesy of Brookfield and Grange Farm. A decade passed by to the sounds of Mark and Caroline’s car crash, Nelson’s disappearance, the destruction of GM crops, the doings of the evil Simon Pemberton. Oh, happy days!
(Wild child, Kate Aldridge, as an infant. Nice sheep-adorned duffle – but what a discomfiting stare! The gaze of Beelzebub is clearly a sign of what’s to come.)
What’s interesting about my Archers fascination – both then and now — is that, with a very few exceptions (Ed, Fallon, Jill) I despise, or am annoyed by every single character. But perhaps being irritated (or, in the case of Kenton, perpetually embarrassed) is part of the pleasure of The Archers. I love to shout at the radio whenever whingeing, needy Emma appears (will she ever get her comeuppance?), bawl expletives at Shula (I think I hate her most of all) or berate the script writers for representing Lynda’s concerns about the preservation of ancient rights of way as unnecessarily absurd. And clearly The Archers has this effect on others as well. My Dad, who is a very mild, easy-going sort of man, professes a violent dislike for Dayvidd Archer. “Its something about his voice,” he told me, “he’s just so bloody smug.” Indeed, its in the exchanges between Dayvidd and the vile Pipsqueak (his firstborn) that my Archers affection finds its limits. If they start discussing another earthworm survey, or reinforcing their father-daughter bond over the intricacies of bovine parturition, I just have to turn the radio off.
(Dayvidd Archer: the most hated man on radio?)
For those of you who don’t know, The Archers is Britain’s longest-running soap opera: set in a small rural community in the Midlands, and developed under consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, it was originally designed to inform as well as entertain. The first episode was broadcast in the Spring of 1950–when post-war rationing was still in force–and the narrative provided a context for the dramatisation of themes that might improve productivity and accelerate the modernisation of British farming. The rural setting still remains the occasion for much issue-led drama, and the short lapse between recording and transmisssion often allows the programme to respond to urgent and pressing events in the British farming world (such as foot and mouth, or Bovine TB). So while I despise most of the characters, and though I think the show’s script writing is often pretty poor, I do enjoy its country context. Indeed, perhaps the most pleasing thing about The Archers is its pace and rhythm. Unlike other soaps, events unfold in real time. In this sense, the choices of the show’s writers and editors are often brave and important. Compare, for example, the different ways in which Coronation Street and The Archers have dealt with dementia-related storylines: in Coronation Street, a character was diagnosed and whisked off screen within a matter of weeks, while in The Archers, the condition is unfolding, slowly and painfully, over months and years, highlighting many life-changing, distressing and difficult decisions. Things take time, on The Archers, and they are also reassuringly regular, predictable. My life is neither regular or predictable, and for me, it is sad but true that each year’s diurnal round can be measured by familiar Archers events: the village panto, the single wicket contest, the flower and produce show, the happy reappearance of the Grundy World of Christmas. “When shall I make the Christmas cake?” Tom asked me, just a few days ago. “Not sure,” I said, “just wait until Jill Archer mentions Stir-up-Sunday . . . ”
(Jill Archer. Baking and beekeeping doyenne).
Now: to the patterns. The booklet makes reference to the death of Polly Perks, and Nelson’s wine bar: I reckon that dates it to 1982 or 3. As one might imagine, it is peppered with ’80s attrocities (the thing that Caroline is wearing is just too horrendous to show), but there are actually some interesting patterns in here. One in particular caught my eye. . . . I have stared at this garment sported by prejudiced Brummy landlord, Sid Perks, many times, and am still not sure whether its pint-pot-and-dart motifs are a work of design genius, or a source of knitting horror. You must decide for yourselves.
(I like to think that Sid’s gesture suggests guilt, as he finally acknowledges his own appalling homophobia.)
As you can see at the top of this post, in addition to the patterns, Argyll Wools (still listed as a going business concern in Guiseley) also issued an Ambridge yarn range. Ambridge Yarn! Amazing! The fibre-composition is very much of its time, combining “the softness of machine washable wool enhanced with the durability of nylon”, but it did come in 33 shades, of which just 5 would enable you to knit a Sid Perks pint pot sweater! I am beginning to dream of unused skeins of Ambridge yarn lurking around the nation’s charity shops. Imagine!
As well as the more outlandish ’80s designs, I actually think many of the men’s garments in the booklet are rather pleasing — in particular this pair of sweaters sported by Phil and Jethro. I felt quite moved to see this happy picture of Norman Painting, sans beard. Archers listeners will know that Painting — who is depicted on the left, and who played Phil Archer — died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 85. His voice was heard in the first episode of the programme in May 1950, and will last be heard in one to be broadcast on November 22nd. A successful script writer as well as an actor, Painting also wrote over a thousand Archers‘ episodes in the 60s, 70s and early 80s — often attempting to write Phil out of the narrative to give himself a rest. I actually own a copy of Painting’s Archers memoir, Forever Ambridge (ahem), and I’ll remember Phil most for his love of pigs (which I share). I was very pleased to see him included in my now-to-be-treasured Archers pattern booklet.
*PS Those who have not yet experienced the delights of The Archers may be interested to note that you can download each episode as a podcast. Hurrah!*
**PPS I am feeling better**