Who’s Who in The Archers

 

The latest editon

Every year for the past ten years (more, actually) I’ve written a guide to the characters and places in The Archers. The latest edition –  Who’s Who in The Archers 2009 – is out now.

This is the book that I wanted when I first started listening to The Archers.  So many characters, with their interconnecting lives… Who were they all?  And why did so many people call this Tom Forrest guy “Uncle Tom”?

So when I actually started to work on the programme, I suggested we write and publish a guide and sell it direct to the public.  We weren’t allowed to make a profit, so the purchase price simply covered the production and mailing costs.

One of the early in-house versions

Various people worked on those early self-published editions, but it settled down to be my baby, and we sold over 90,000 copies.

BBC Books

Eventually BBC Books took it on and published it as a proper paperback.  It’s gone through some small changes over the years – expanded in size, adding a Frequently Asked Questions section and an index of characters’ forenames (as it can be many months before you hear a character referred to by their surname), and this year the cover has been redesigned.

But essentially it’s the same idea as the original – a guide to the main current characters – speaking and silent – and the main locations in Ambridge.  That’s about 120 entries.  We even list the numbers and types of animals and the acreages of the different crops on the farms.

Entertainment

“…Sid Perks is the nicest homophobe you could hope to meet…”

It’s a reference work, obviously, but I try to make it an entertaining read, which led to someone dubbing it “the little book with the big attitude”.  As well as a robust approach to the foibles of the characters, I’ve had fun with how the facts are presented.  Over the years I’ve had some entries that wrap up the basic information in formats such as a postcard from Grey Gables hotel, a rubbish website for Borchester Chamber of Commerce, and a Good Pub Guide review of The Bull, Ambridge.

“…Cynics would say that Kate getting pregnant by a black South African was just another ploy to shock the more conservative elements in Ambridge…”

And if any entry has been substantially the same for two years running, then I completely rewrite it, to keep it fresh.  I don’t want someone picking it up and saying, oh, no I’ve got this already.  This means that in some cases I’ve  written the same basic information several different ways, which makes it interesting for me, too (I don’t always use the word “interesting” when I’m racking my brains for yet another approach, I must admit).

Accuracy

Of course, the main thing is that it has to be accurate, which poses a particular set of challenges.  Most of the writing is done in April/May for a July press date and an early October publication date.  When I’m writing, we haven’t planned in detail exactly what’s going to happen on air in publication week.  I work from our longterm planning “grids”, which give me a fair idea, but there’s always a lot of fine-tuning at proof stage.

Even then I don’t always get it 100 per cent.  In one edition I anticipated by two weeks a character (Kenton Archer) moving in with his girlfriend, for example. A small error, but it annoyed me.

And there’s also the challenge of keeping the book as accurate as possible once it’s been published, because things are changing all the time in the programme.  I’ve developed a cunning use of the perfect tense, so that an entry is still accurate even when I know a character’s circumstances will change over the life of the book.

So, for example, I won’t say: “Ed is serving a community punishment for breaking and entering”, even though that might be entirely accurate at the time of publication.  I’d say: “Ed was sentenced to a community punishment for breaking and entering”, which is true even when the character is no longer cleaning graffiti off the bandstand.

Blogged

The first mention of the book in the blogosphere – at least the first that I was aware of –  was by Tim Relf, who writes Farming Today’s entertaining Field Day blog.  He hates The Archers, apparently, so it was nice of him to give it a mention.

Academic study of Archers fans

For the past few months, a small number of academics has been looking at the online behaviour of listeners and fans of BBC radio.

It’s part of a knowledge-sharing project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

One of the areas of fandom it studied was The Archers, looking mainly at the Archers Addicts fan club, the Archers Appreciation Facebook group and (to the greatest extent) the BBC’s own Archers message board, for which I am the host.

It had some interesting things to say about the conflict – which is certainly there on the BBC’s board – between people who simply want to discuss the characters and storylines in a more or less straightforward way, and those who, in the words of the report, take an “ironic” or “anti-fan” approach.

I’ve posted on the message board in the past about my worries that a very energetic and vocal group who tend to take a negative line can set the tone for the board, discouraging milder users.  Indeed the report says that some users are put off by this, and choose to go elsewhere.

But the BBC board – funded by all licence fee payers – should really be a place where everyone can feel they are welcome to post their views.  It’s a continuing challenge.

Having said that, I should count my blessings, as overall the discussions on the BBC board are of far higher quality than in many other (non-Archers) online forums.

Here’s a brief summary of the findings, by Lyn Thomas, of London Metropolitan University.

You might also be interested in this report on specialist music fans (and indeed producers) by Andrew Dubber and Tim Wall of Birmingham City University.

Stephen Fry is following me

For some reason, this made me irrationally pleased:

Google Mail - Stephen Fry is now following you on Twitter! - keri.davies@googlemail.com
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I know he won’t really be hanging on my every utterance.  How can he, when he was already following over a thousand people at this point, and it’s over 3000 as I write.  But I don’t care.  Stephen Fry is following me on Twitter.

I’ve never met him, but my wife and youngest son Dominic have, at a party at St James’s Palace, hosted by Prince Charles for The Archers’ 50th birthday.  While I was somewhere else in the room, no doubt making small talk with the BBC’s deputy controller of napkin rings, Stephen (he’s following me on Twitter, you know) discovered that Dominic plays Daniel Hebden Lloyd.

He lifted Dom up in the air and cried “Dominic!  I’m your biggest fan!”

What a nice man.

Did I mention that he’s following me on Twitter?

Local radio interviews for new book

Tomorrow, 9 October, I’m doing some local radio interviews to promote my new book Who’s Who in The Archers 2009, about which more later.

You might like to tune in if it’s in your local area.  Or through the magic of the internet you could listen to every interview and hear me say the same thing seven times :o)

These are the timings:

1040 Jersey
1050 Guernsey
1100 Shropshire
1110 Hereford and Worcester

1150 Solent
1210 Coventry and Warwickshire
1220 WM

The Archers goes to Bestival

This week, two examples of British eccentricity come together, as two of the younger characters from The Archers (Alice Aldridge and Christopher Carter) are off to Bestival.

As it happened, it fell to me to write all this week’s Archers episodes (31 Aug – 5 Sep), which was quite handy, as I know Bestival fairly well.  I went to the first one, when it was a small hopeful punt by Rob da Bank. In fact I bumped into Rob on the site and asked if he was going to do another one.  “If I can afford it”, was his answer.

It’s become a great success, of course, and I went again in 2006, when it had grown substantially.  I couldn’t make it this year (going to the End of The Road instead), but I took two off my sons to its new small offshoot Camp Bestival, which was great.

When I was writing the script, the Bestival folk sent me a full site plan and stage running order, so that I could get the details right, supplemented with my own knowledge of the festival atmosphere. So I now know where the Hidden Disco is (although I’m sworn to secrecy).

There’s a bit of run-up on Thursday evening’s Archers episode (1900hrs, repeated the next day at 1400hrs), and quite a substantial chunk on Friday.

If you’re familiar with festival-going, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the episodes.  In fact any feedback is always welcome.

btw, I’ve been writing a bit about equipment for festivals:

tents

sleeping mats

Starter jobs for would-be drama writers

This article was originally commissioned by 4Talent as part of their “How to get ahead in” series.

It’s mainly about the sort of jobs that people interested in writing (radio) drama might get as a step on the way. But it also gives an insight into the odd route that has brought me to being a writer on the world’s finest – well, certainly longest running – radio drama series.

As the shoulder-padded 80s turned into the unstructured 90s, I was working as a presentation and media trainer.  After a day of being nasty on-camera to a group of senior managers in the breakfast cereal business – and teaching them how to fight back – one of them asked for a private word.

He wanted my advice about a senior public relations post they were thinking of creating.  I did my best to help, but in the end he had to reveal his true purpose – he was sounding me out for the job.  Inwardly I kicked myself for not latching on to his real agenda.  Not the level of sensitivity they’d expect from a savvy PR operator.  But I promised myself that if I was ever in the same situation again, I wouldn’t be so slow.

Two years later, my conversation with Mr Oaty Puffs (some names have been changed) returned in a blaze of neon, accompanied by screaming klaxons and flashing arrows.

Archers producer

By now, I was a BBC press officer, promoting, among other things, BBC Radio 4’s long-running radio drama serial The Archers.  And I was being told that The Archers had a short-notice vacancy for a producer.  I wasn’t actually being sounded out for the job, but I didn’t let that stop me.

Thanks to the amazing open-mindedness of the managers involved, I was given the temporary job.  A few months later I applied for the post proper.  And got it.  I served eleven years as a producer (later senior producer) and five years ago became an Archers scriptwriter.

So, what was my starter job that got me on the ladder to scriptwriting?  None of the ones I’ve mentioned so far.  Before the training company I’d worked for an ad agency – but that wasn’t it.  I’d actually done my first scriptwriting when I was an officer in the RAF, for a video presentation used in recruiting, and later writing and directing comedy and panto for station shows.

So it was that then?  Actually, no.

My starter job

The starter job for my career as a writer was the very first job I did, at the age of 13:  a paper round.  In fact every single job I’ve done (and I’ve done plenty) contributes to my writing.

As a drama writer, you have to create character, settings, plot.  You have to tell your story through the technical constraints and possibilities of the medium.  And in radio especially, dialogue is your main tool.

Many would-be writers are told:  write what you know.  It follows that the more you know, the more you can write.  The more people you’ve come into contact with, the more varied the settings, then the more you have that you can draw on.

And if you want your characters to talk like real people, you’d better start listening to real people, from as many different backgrounds as possible.

Characters I’ve met

Because of the many years it took me to find my writing niche, I’ve worked with hundreds of characters, some ordinary, some more colourful. A rapacious gay milkman. The puffed-up bank manager (yes, I worked in a bank), who told me I ‘wasn’t officer material’ – just before I became an RAF officer.  An ultra-competitive angling maniac.  The driven, alcohol-fuelled, two-Jags socialist (not that one).

I’ve worked in a greasy, macho garage, a dreary supermarket, a rough estate pub.  I’ve communed with senior civil servants and committees of accountants.  As a semi-pro DJ and drummer I’ve been backstage in ratty clubs, fancy hotels and posh marquees on country house lawns.

And every one of those experiences makes me a better writer.

In the business

Of course, there are jobs ‘in the business’ that can help.  Any way you can get near the actual production process should educate you about the technical side of storytelling.  One fellow Archers writer started as a production secretary on the programme.  Another did a couple of weeks’ work experience.  Script editor jobs are great for the nuts and bolts of story creation and what will and won’t work.

Two Archers writers are former actors.  Acting and writing can be a good combination.  Most actors, sadly, have plenty of spare time to work on scripts.  But I’d only recommend entering that bruising profession if you want to act as much as you want to write.

Just don’t be in too much of a hurry to get a job ‘in the media’.  It can be great fun, but it’s very much its own little world.

Go and discover other worlds first.

This week’s Archers – I take responsibility

I wrote the episodes of The Archers which go out this week: Sunday 6 to Friday 11 July, plus the omnibus on Sunday 13 July.

They pick up from an exciting cliffhanger last Friday, when it became absolutely clear to Fallon that her boyfriend Ed was still in thrall to his former partner (and brother’s ex-wife) Emma.

On a more comic tip, it’s the moment that David’s been dreading, as his 15-year-old daughter Pip takes part in a “Moulin Rouge” parade. Voulez-vous watchez avec Pa?

You can hear The Archers on BBC Radio 4 (1900 hrs and 1400 hrs), or via a plethora of trendy methods such as streaming and podcasts.  All via the BBC’s Archers website, which also has a lot of useful background if you’re thinking “Fallon?  Ed?  Who are these people?”