The Archers, the BBC soap opera which has been running since 1950, with 16,000 fans and millions of devoted listeners worldwide to its credit, appears to be returning to its roots. After a 60th anniversary year where key characters forwent their day-to-day agricultural enterprises so that they might fret about friends and neighbors who’d served time in jail, had a baby or fallen off a roof, it was downright refreshing to hear this deliciously dull exchange between college student Pip Archer and her mother Ruth last week:
“So what are you going to do now? Watch your new DVD?”
“Watch television in daylight?”
“Well, you are supposed to be having the day off.”
“I’d rather be out in the farm.”
“You’re not so busy now, though—haymaking done, still weeks ‘til harvest, the cows are drying off… If Dad can have time to go to the show, you can put your feet up a bit.”
“I’m sure I can still find something to do.”
This leisurely, realism-packed back-to-the-bland movement is welcome, since a whole new Archers series has begun on the revamped Radio 4 Extra, the online comedy-and-drama channel formerly known as BBC7. Ambridge Extra is named for the rural village where the main Archers show takes place (plus the word “Extra”), but most of the stories so far concern young adults who’ve fled farmland for collegiate pursuits, or for wastrel adventures in bigger towns.
It’s unfair to suggest that the villagers of Ambridge, on the traditional Archers show, doesn’t pay attention to the younger members of its community—there’s rarely an episode without a recalcitrant child or concerns over how to deal with an infant, or worries about summer jobs or career choices or school exams. But very few of the young adults are given lives of their own. They’re mostly living at home and answering to family. When Alice and Chris got abruptly married in Las Vegas last year, for instance, the story was told largely through the reactions of Alice’s straight-laced (and Chris’ considerably earthier) parents.
So the Ambridge element is ambiguous. The “Extra” is clear, though: we get fuller background details on relatively minor characters in the main Archers narrative. “Extra” stands for extrapolation—in The Archers, 16-year-old Jamie Perks is always “skint” when he sneaks into pubs with his mates, and his mother is always worrying about whether he’s doing his “revisions” for his final exams. So Ambridge Extra invents tangential scenes where Jamie constantly considers stealing money or valuables.
Having only a couple of 15-minute episodes a week, compared to the six The Archers gets, means Ambridge Extra can be pretty slow going. Only two main storylines have dominated the show’s first two dozen installments. In the one about newlywed Alice and her adventures at university—away from her husband Chris, and unknowingly the object of the affections and machinations of her sinister, outwardly ingratiating housemate Chaz. Ambridge Extra has created new characters, but the one we’re hearing most about is a despicable villain, and the others are hangers-on whose characters are far from developed.
I’m having the same problems with The Archers courting a younger audience as I am with Archie Comics (via the Archie Marries… series and the now year-old Life With Archie magazine) courting an older crowd. Whether or not they’re well done (and the writing on both Archers and Archie has been inconsistent), it seems forced. Coming up something entirely new might be tougher to establish, but the novelty appeal of a spin-off can be shortlived if it isn’t eventually able to stand on its own.
The Archers airs Sunday through Friday at 7 p.m. (London time); each episode is rerun at 2 p.m. the following afternoon. There’s also “omnibus” edition of all that weeks episodies’ end-to-end on Saturday. Ambridge Extra airs Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. (London time) with same-day reruns at 2:15 p.m. and an omnibus edition Fridays at 10:30 a.m. repeated Sundays at 11:15 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. BBC streams all its channels live online, but it’s easier to keep up via podcasts (iTunes has ‘em) or the BBC’s “Listen Again” option, which keeps programs available for a week after they first aired.