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