Keri Davies Q and A

I recently did a Q and A for the newsletter run by Charlot King. Charlot is the author of the Cambridge Murder Mysteries, and the owner of a quite extraordinary looking dog, Moobear often appears in the photographs which Charlot shares on Twitter.

She has kindly agreed that I can reproduce the interview here. It goes into some detail about my path to the astonishing privilege of being allowed to write for The Archers, and into even more detail about how I do it.

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Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer – where did you start and how is that journey progressing? 

I’m not a very academic or introspective person; I tend to just get on with things. So I might not have very enlightening answers to these questions. In fact, the idea of my having a ‘journey’ as a writer sounds absurdly pretentious to me. I may have a very specialised, very limited celebrity, but inside I still feel like little Keri Davies who grew up in a dull Wiltshire town. Sorry Trowbridge, but you have to admit you’ll never be Prague…

I have always had some facility with words, which has bubbled up in all of the rag bag of jobs that comprise my ‘career’ (not so much chequered as houndstoothed): bank clerk, RAF officer, PR, advertising, presentation training… I was in my thirties when I joined the BBC as a press officer, and I only moved over to The Archers temporarily, to fill an emergency vacancy. That was in 1992, and sometimes I still can’t believe that I work on the programme that I began to listen to in my well-ordered room at RAF College Cranwell.

Surprisingly, my time in the RAF was a direct step on the road to where I am now. While a recruiting officer, I suggested and wrote the script for an audio-visual package about officer life. And off-duty I wrote and directed plays and pantomimes. These amateur efforts were a long way from professional drama; when I started work on The Archers, I had a massive learning curve. But it all helped, as does having a wide range of life experiences to enlighten my writing.

I suppose we are drawn to things we are good at, and this is the one thing I’m really good at. I’ve just been so lucky that by a catalogue of accidents I’ve found a niche where I’ve been able to earn a living at it for so long.

 

How do you write? What is your process?

I don’t really have a process. I have deadlines. Ninety percent of my writing is scripts for The Archers, so the requirements of the programme dictate my approach (about which more below).


Do you remember the first radio play, tv or film that stuck with you? And the library in your formative years that you remember fondly?

I’m going to swerve this slightly, because one of my greatest influences is the fact that my parents were active in the local musical theatre scene. In fact, before I was born they were members of the Welsh National Opera Company, in the days when it had an amateur chorus. Some of my earliest memories are sitting in rehearsals of The Mikado or South Pacific, and it infected me with a lifelong love of music and drama.

And the library… oh yes. Scratch any writer (or any decent writer) and you’ll find a reader. Precocious little swot that I was, at primary school I remember asking if I could use the upper school library, because all the books I was meant to be reading were too ‘babyish’. And later, I’d cycle regularly to Trowbridge Library. Four books every week for years. Science fiction and PG Wodehouse were particular favourites (Wodehouse still is – perhaps the nicest compliment I was ever paid as a writer was that I was a cross between PG Wodehouse and Hunter S Thompson).


You are known for the writing The Archers, can you tell us about that? 

A caveat: my answers to this question reflect the ‘usual’ Archers, which from May 2020 will be replaced by a simpler format until things return to whatever normality will then be in place.

One of the great things about writing The Archers is that it’s a blend of team and individual working. As writers, we work hand in glove with the production team, who in fact are responsible for a lot of research, story creation and early drafting.

The whole team gets together twice a year to brainstorm long term stories, but the detailed planning is done in script meetings every five weeks. At this stage we are working with ‘storylines’ – short stories written in the present tense, which outline in some detail what will happen to our characters approximately three months hence.

Individual writers are each responsible for a week on air – six episodes Sunday to Friday. So five out of the dozen or so on the team then return to their lonely writers’ garrets. They each have to turn their week, containing seven or so storylines, into six episodes of drama that also works as one 75 minute play.

This is the moment where artistic ambition bashes heads with budgets and logistics. We need actors to tell our stories. Actors (quite rightly) cost money, so there is a limit to how many we can use in a week: actually 39 appearances, from around 25 or so individual characters. To make it even more interesting, not all the actors are available for all recording sessions. So at this stage, it’s like doing a jigsaw when you’ve lost the lid with the picture on.

We have to decide which parts of which story we will tell on each day, and how; which characters we need to hear; and which bits we can hear ‘by report’. And where possible, we try to find ways to link stories, so the listener isn’t simply jumping back and forth between isolated strands.

All Archers writers work differently, but the way I do it is to take a sheet of A3 paper and rule it into six columns, one for each day. Then I work through the storylines, jotting major plot segments – ‘beats’ as we call them – onto little sticky notes, using a different colour for each storyline. Ah, the glamour of showbiz…

You can see my most recent plan here:

the archers week plan

The scribblings are quite cryptic: “Lee to Lynda. Lynda furious with Robert”, “Ben bumps into Chloe. Josh – hilar”. But it’s enough to trigger in my mind the full content of the scene in question. Within the constraints, I distribute these beats through the week to form an interlocking web of dramatic arcs. I try to get a good balance of big and small, drama and comedy, domestic and farming, with ‘hooks’ to keep the listener tuning in, and of course an extra-large hook on the Friday.

It’s a case of trial and error – or ‘trial and improvement’ as children are now taught. Once I’ve added up all my actor bookings, I frequently have to revise my initial thoughts. For example, I might decide that we’ll hear the run up and aftermath of a meeting using two characters, rather than dramatising the full thing with three.

Once the maths is done, it’s time for the English again. I use my chart as the basis of a scene-by-scene synopsis. For the week we’re looking at, mine started:

1. INT, HOSPITAL WARD. 1400 HRS
LYNDA, CHLOE, ROY
Chloe is attending to Lynda [I’ll research something appropriate for Lynda’s condition and Chloe’s likely experience level]. Chloe is encouraging about Lynda’s progress but it falls on stony ground…

And so on over 18 pages or so, until the final moment of Friday’s episode:

7A. INT. HOSPITAL, CORRIDOR. CONTINUOUS
GAVIN
The door closes behind Gavin. Dad, it’s me, he says darkly. We might have a problem.

How long do we have to do all this? A long weekend. Archers deadlines are pretty brutal.

At this point, we pause. All five writers send their synopses to the Archers editor Jeremy Howe, the agricultural advisor Sarah Swadling, and two producers who as part of their jobs also work as script editors. You won’t hear their names unless they happen to direct episodes, but the script editors are the unsung heroes of The Archers. They compare our synopses with the storylines, to make sure we stay on-piste, and that everything hangs together across the five weeks. And they often give insightful comments that tighten and improve the drama.

After a detailed conversation with our individual script editor, we can finally start to write the actual scripts. We don’t have long for this; usually about 11 days. It would be impossible from a standing start and a blank screen. But as you can see, a vast amount of work has already been done, so now it’s a case of making the outline live and breathe. At this stage I am writing as fast as I can type, taking dictation from the characters in my head. In any other walk of life, hearing voices might be worrying. For us, it’s a positive advantage.

Again, the script editors work through the five weeks of scripts, and we have a weekend to do any rewriting that’s requested. Then pretty soon the pack for the next scriptmeeting will arrive in our email: ninety or so pages of research, briefings, archive references and draft storylines.

And it all starts again…


The Archers has responded to the Covid-19 crisis in a very creative and laudable way. What can you tell us about what’s been happening behind the scenes, and how that will play out in the programmes to come? 

My production colleagues have worked minor and largely unseen miracles. Our response has been twofold. First, the challenge of recording episodes which were already written and scheduled for transmission. This usually requires a large and changing cast flowing into and out of the BBC’s studios at The Mailbox in Birmingham, many of whom are well past normal retirement age. One (June Spencer who plays Peggy Woolley) is over 100 years old. I can’t begin to imagine how they managed it, but I understand a great deal of disinfectant was involved.

That gave us a buffer of episodes, which at the time of writing we are eking out to early May, at five transmissions a week rather than our usual six. We’re then going to broadcast a few weeks of archive episodes before we start broadcasting in our new format. Because the existing episodes were written before the realities of Covid-19 became apparent, for a while Ambridge has had to remain unaffected by the virus. I know it would have been nice if we could have reflected the national situation in real time. But that would have meant ditching practically every storyline, because almost all of them involved people meeting in some way, or refer to activities that were now not happening (mass VE Day celebrations, to take just one example). We’d then have to invent all-new stories, and then write completely new scripts. From my answer above, I hope people realise how impossible that would be. So it was a case of temporarily virus-free Archers or none at all.

The second challenge was to conceive and then create a drama which could carry the torch of The Archers, but which could be made under lockdown conditions. So for a while, the format of the programme will change significantly. We will hear single voices – several in each episode, but not directly conversing with each other. And we’ll use all the techniques available to us to tell stories about Ambridge getting on with life despite the restrictions. These include telephone calls, voicemail messages, even the occasional video blog – and we’ll hear our characters’ thoughts as they go about their daily work, reflecting their actions and their interactions with their fellow villagers.

Covid-19 will be present, but it will not be central to our stories. We feel people are hearing quite enough about that on the news, and indeed in their own lives.

We have equipped our actors with audio gear and training so they can record their scenes at home. And our talented sound engineers will use all the magic of the radio studio to conjure up the familiar Ambridge, which our listeners know almost as well as their own neighbourhoods.

I was in the first wave of writers to take on the new format, and I don’t mind telling you it was a bit of a white-knuckle ride for all involved. But now I’m through the other side and looking forward to my next episodes, I’m confident that it’s going to work. It’s still The Archers, with its conflict and comedy, countryside and character; just told in a different way.

 
Are there any other projects you are involved with that you can speak about?

Are you kidding? No, seriously The Archers keeps me pretty busy. But in 2019 I was lucky enough to be asked to write a spin-off book: The Archers Year of Food and Farming. It takes a month-by-month look at what happens in the farms, gardens and kitchens of
Ambridge, with recipes, archive memories, and newly imagined stories, exclusive to the book. It was a new style of writing for me, but I’m pleased to say it’s been very well received.

And I recently trained with Humanists UK to conduct non-religious funerals. It uses my writing and presentation skills in a very direct way, to help families at a crucial time. People can read more about my approach and practice on my celebrant webpage

 

Whether writing, performance, music, painting, sculpture and more – I think the arts have never been more vital. What is your take on the arts and their role in society?

Given that what we call civilization spans five thousand years or more, I’d hesitate to say ‘never more vital’. ‘Seldom more at threat’ seems more the mark, as market fundamentalism has denigrated anything that doesn’t increase shareholder value. If the only way you can access high quality art, in any medium, is through a high-priced ticket, we have failed art and we have failed society.

I think of my parents in the 1950s. A carpenter and a sewing machinist jumping on the train after work and rushing down to Cardiff, not just to consume but to participate in grand opera. We need more of that inclusivity.

 

Finally, three albums you’d take to a desert island and one book? 

I mentioned how important music was to me, so this is torture. Very quickly, then: Blue by Joni Mitchell, so I can have a good cry. Settle by Disclosure, so I can have a good dance. And something I’ve never heard before, washed up at random on the shore. I’m a great believer in the importance of new experiences to keep you alive.

For the book… let’s have a PG Wodehouse omnibus, so I can immerse myself in that beautifully crafted world-that-never-was.

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Charlot King on Twitter

Charlot King’s website

Down In The River to sing

Like a lot of people who enjoy making music, my activities have been rather  constrained by the lockdown. There’s not much that’s good about Covid-19, but one silver lining is that it has arrived at a time of unprecedented* connectivity.

And so I’ve jumped at the opportunity to sing virtually with others.

This project was organised by Morag Hannah, via The Viral Jukebox on Facebook. I was particularly keen to take part, as I used to sing this song as a lullaby to my three boys, all of whom are now hulking adults.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

(*Every article about Coronavirus has to include this word. It’s the law)

Recovery from COVID-19 will be a very long haul

You may have heard about the report from Imperial College, on which the government’s current COVID-19 policy is based. You can download it from their website, and there’s also a summary there:

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease…/…/

It’s long but well worth reading. I rather hope I’ve misunderstood it. But if not, my main takeaway is this:

The very restrictive measures introduced on 16 March 2020 (plus also possibly school and university closures) are likely to be in effect, for periods of many weeks, roughly two-thirds of the time on / one third off, until a vaccine is widely available. This means the next 18 months or possibly longer.

So any rescheduling of events is a gamble, with odds of a successful re-staging of about 2 to 1 against.

I can understand why the government is not making a big thing of this, focussing instead on what people need to do here and now. Because quite frankly, it’s very depressing. But anyone who needs to plan and prepare properly should read the report and make their decisions accordingly.

And if I’ve got it wrong, do please tell me.

It also really emphasises the need for everyone to be stringent about all the social distancing measures. The effectiveness of those directly affects the number of ICU admissions – and that figure is the trigger for the restrictions being put in place, and then (as they reduce) temporarily lifted.

I wish everybody the best physical and mental health possible in these turbulent times.

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – A Christmas reading

For the December extract from The Archers Year of Food and Farming, I’ve gone the full Jackanory and actually read a passage. I’ve tried to conjure up the magic of Christmas as seen through a child’s eyes (in this case Pip’s daughter Rosie). I do hope you enjoy it.

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

Can we restore someone’s faith in human nature?

I’m putting this on my blog so that I can link to it from Twitter. I hope you can help.

Yesterday (Wednesday 18 Dec) I saw an incident at an ATM in Birmingham town centre. A young woman had taken some cash out, but several notes were caught by the wind. She managed to retrieve all but one – which was snaffled by a young lad who promptly ran off with it.

Fortunately I was on my bike, so I was able to catch up with the scally and persuade him to hand the twenty over. But by the time I got back to the ATM, the lady had disappeared. I asked around, and rang the emergency number, but to no avail.

So… can we share this far and wide? If it gets to the rightful owner, all she has to do is get in touch (my contact details are on this page) with the location of the ATM and I’ll arrange to get the money to her.

I suppose £20 isn’t that much nowadays, but I know that something like this can be unsettling, so more than anything I’d just like her to know that not everyone is like the chancer who scarpered with her cash.

Thanks all!

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – a taste of November

book packshot strapline roundel

Here’s the latest extract from my book The Archers Year of Food and Farming. This is from the November chapter, and gives an insight into what some of the farmers of Ambridge are getting up to in that dank month. 

For the farmers of Ambridge, it is the dampness of November which raises the greatest challenges. This is a key time of transition for Bridge Farm and Brookfield. At the start of the month, both have their cattle out in their fields. By the end, most of them will be housed indoors. The big question is, when to bring them in?

Johnny is in Long Meadow, gazing thoughtfully at the dairy herd. Montbéliardes are officially a red pied breed. ‘Pied’ in this case just means two-coloured, originally in reference to the black and white of the magpie. Each one displays a unique coat of random white and red-brown patches. They are good-looking beasts. But at the moment, Johnny is more concerned about the ground on which they are grazing.

With the reducing temperatures and elusive sunshine, the grass is getting dangerously low. And the more rain that falls, the more the horny, cloven hooves of the cattle will ‘poach’ the soil into mud. They must be moved into their winter housing before the ground is damaged, or it will not provide the high quality grass they will need come the spring. But as soon as they are inside, Bridge Farm’s costs will effectively rise, as the cows will be housed on straw, eating silage.

“What do you think, then? Tony joins his grandson in the gateway. “How much longer?”

“I were going to ask you, Granddad.”

Tony does not really get on with the ‘Monteys’. For him, they have too much Gallic obstinacy. But he knows his land, and has been checking the weather forecast.

“We’ll probably be all right for another week.”

Perhaps a fortnight after that, Tony will bring in his suckler herd of Angus cattle. A suckler herd is pretty much what it sounds like: cows who are still feeding their calves, although it must be said that by now these are pretty big calves. He will need a few helpers, so most of the family will turn out: someone leading, another driving them from the rear, plus a couple of stoppers in the yard, to make sure they don’t make a break for it and end up among the mismatched vintage crockery in Fallon’s tea room. The temptation to make a bull in a china shop joke here is almost irresistible…

At Brookfield, Pip, David and Ruth go through a similar anxious process. Although their timings might be a little different, the principle is the same. One evening after milking, rather than being walked back to the field, the dairy cows will find themselves directed into a strawed-down barn, their quarters for the next five months.

And within a few weeks, they will bring in their Herefords too. But not all of them. They will leave some youngstock (a term which covers anything from a calf to a heifer about to give birth) in the fields all winter. The Hereford is a hardy breed, perfectly able to ‘outwinter’. But any animal that is in the final stages of fattening is best brought under cover, so they can use their energy to put on condition, rather than keeping themselves warm against the chill winds and frosts of December.

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – an October nugget

book packshot strapline roundel

This is the second of a collection of extracts from the book I wrote in 2019. The Archers Year of Food and Farming is published by Seven Dials.

The October chapter starts like this:

I have to warn you, there is a lot of sex in October. And it is described with very direct Middle English words, so buckle up.

‘Tup’ is both a noun and a verb. It’s the old name for a ram, and you will still hear it used in that way. More frequently it is used to describe the act itself. At many farms, including Brookfield, October into November is tupping season.

As the morning sun lances through the mist, giving an ethereal quality to the familiar pastures, David and his younger son Ben drive their bleating ewes. David nods with approval as sheepdog Bess responds fluidly to Ben’s commands. A firm “Come bye!” and Bess moves to the left, clockwise around the flock. “Away!” means the opposite. When Bess is at a distance, Ben uses the whistle – a curved-sided metal triangle that sits on his tongue. A quick, high double note through the small hole signifies Come Bye, a single mid-tone Away. Now Ben blows a longer, higher blast and Bess immediately drops to the ground, alert and ready for the next command.

These ewes are being placed in various fields depending on their weight. Too skinny and they may not ovulate, but too much fat will bring problems come lambing time. So they will be fed appropriately to bring them all near the ideal tupping weight of about 70 kilograms. This will be a daily job for someone, and they need to as nimble as Robert Snell in the Village Hall doorway. Keen Flower and Produce Show contestants are as nothing compared to hungry ewes hearing their dinner tumbling from that large plastic sack into a long metal trough. David has had his legs bowled from under him on more than one occasion.

Ben turns to his father. “So we’re not doing anything for Harvest Supper this year?”

David’s face darkens. “No. Uncle Tony’s giving them a side of beef.”

“That’s good isn’t it? If we don’t have to bother – ”

“Because your uncle Kenton reckoned Bridge Farm beef was better than ours.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Thanks, brother.”

Celebrations of the end of harvest exist all round the world. In Britain, the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and is synonymous with this time of year; literally, given that the Old English word ‘haerfest’ actually means autumn. A good harvest could mean the difference between life and death. So when everything was safely gathered in, it was usual for the farmer to host a meal to thank everyone who had been involved. ‘A meal’ makes it sound like a sedate and civilised affair. But we can imagine that the relief after a month of toil, coupled with free food and (especially) drink gave the peasantry licence for the hooliest of hooleys. Imagine the Grundys in full flow, with a side order of Horrobins, and you will get an inkling.

The Ambridge Harvest Supper is a true community affair; lots of people mucking in with the arrangements and the catering. There is usually entertainment of some sort – often a barn dance with the steps called by buxom, buckskin-clad Jolene Rogers, the one-time Lily of Leyton Cross.

At various times the meal has been held at the Village Hall, Brookfield Farm, Bridge Farm, The Bull, Home Farm, and even in a marquee on the village green. In 1997 it became a truly moveable feast, on ‘safari supper’ lines. One course was served in each of the surrounding villages: Darrington, Edgeley, and Penny Hassett; while in Ambridge, Jennifer Aldridge waited with the desserts she had lovingly created. And waited… And waited. She eventually learned that each village had gone so over the top with their catering that most people were stuffed to bursting and could not consume any more. Poor Jennifer!

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies