Magazine article The Spectator

Death and the Mistress

Magazine article The Spectator

Death and the Mistress

Article excerpt

Just as Damien Hirst last week launched his diamond-encrusted human skull on to the unsuspecting world he was upstaged by that other icon of British culture, The Archers. Hirst was presumably intending to bring death centre-stage just like the Dutch realist painters of the 17th century.

But the scriptwriters of the Radio Four soap from their bunker in Birmingham came up with something even more shocking: Brian Archer alone in the room talking with his dead lover, Siobhan, whose death rattle we had been hearing all week.

Yes, if you'd accidentally turned on the radio in mid-soap on Sunday morning, you might have been puzzled by that eerie, disturbing sound, the weakening of the expiration, unforgettable to those who have sat with a person as they lay dying.

If you're not a follower, then Siobhan is, or should I say was, Brian's wicked mistress, and the mother of his only son, Ruairi. They split up a few years ago, but she made a shock reappearance in Ambridge just recently already suffering from the cancer that was going to kill her.

Since then we have been given every stage of her decline, through the initial hope and determination via chemo to the weakened resignation. All the time agonising about the fate of her young son. I'm surprised there's not been more of a public reaction to this storyline -- especially after the hooha last autumn over Ruth Archer's dalliance with Sam, the cowherd. For this has all been far more provocative.

If Hirst's intention was to make us welcome death more readily into life, then he's been completely outmanoeuvred by The Archers, which has challenged us to think about nothing else for weeks. 'Hello, my darling, ' says Brian, walking into the room where Siobhan's body lies, the warmth of life slowly ebbing away. 'It's me.' The day before, we had heard her painful last breaths, weirdly broken in to by that familiar tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum.

All week we were confronted head-on with the inescapable realities of someone dying from cancer in the midst of life. No glitz and glamour here.

But there was something else missing from the trials of the Archer clan -- a sense of reverence, of the right way of doing things even when the moral boundaries are so murky. That's what's so refreshing when you hear a young teenager in Jerusalem saying, 'It's a piece of my heart. …

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