How the Archers Has Us Gasping for More; with Touches of Shakespearean and Greek Tragedy, the Radio Soap Reaches for the Heights of Classic Drama

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Byline: NED SHERRIN

ON Friday night The Archers got close to the Bacchae, the avenging furies of Greek drama, as the adulterous Brian Aldridge was torn to pieces at a cocktail party by a horde of wild women - his wife, his stepdaughter and a female cousin by marriage.

Meanwhile, his mistress, the mother of his first son, paused after her full-frontal Thursday attack to play an apparently sympathetic game. More trouble! And there is his holier-than-thou mother-in-law, Peggy, who does not even know yet, waiting in the wings.

Aldridge is basically an unsympathetic character. The fine actor Charles Collingwood, who plays him, once modestly suggested to me he was "the JR of Ambridge".

Brian's baby has now virtually eclipsed "Who Shot JR?"

as a national talking point.

I am not an Archers expert but I am a devotee. I liken it to catching up on village gossip in a brief conversation by the duck pond. For me, the 75-minute Sunday omnibus version does not cut in as a proper drama. I was born and brought up on a farm in Somerset; my brother, a retired farmer, never listens. For a farmer it hardly provides escapist entertainment. He watches urban soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street. I have never seen an entire episode of either. I enjoy the tenuous, romanticised link with my roots.

It is not, of course, the agricultural detail that has taken the show through the roof.

These last weeks I suspect that agricultural editor Graham Harvey has been more or less on holiday, unless he advised on the solitary sheep baa-ing in the background when Brian phoned Siobhan to tell her that the game was up, or unless he is plotting an outbreak of turnip blight, swine fever or BSE in the weeks that lie ahead.

NO, the reason for the excitement is the central adultery that has happened in a community so thoroughly realised. Millions have come to know Ambridge and to identify with its villagers. As long ago as 1955, the death by burning of Grace was a big enough story to overshadow the opening night of commercial television. Forty-seven years on, a lot more emotion and exasperation have been invested in these characters.

The scriptwriters have been extraordinarily clever at teasing the audience's sympathies, as a character behaves impeccably at one moment and then, a few episodes later, exhausts our patience.

Somehow the switches are always credibly motivated. The dialogue has been kept well this side of the purple.

Occasionally the prose has been almost Pinteresque in its economy, practically parodic in its pauses, but gripping. The scene where Debbie confronted her stepfather with his betrayal of her mother was hugely powerful; her final clue in piecing the scandal together, Shakespearean. …