Media Medium
23 February 2001


An everyday story of countryfolk

With farmers 'facing the abyss', what's in the stars for the Archers?

The Archers, "an everyday story of countryfolk", is the longest running radio serial in the world. Its origins go back to a farmer's brainwave at a meeting of broadcasters, farmers and Ministry of Agriculture officials on January 3 1948. This was the day of an uncommon planetary configuration - Uranus opposite to horsy Jupiter in fiery Sagittarius, the sign of the Archer. Why Uranus? This is the hi-tech planet of innovation and as part of its public service brief, the BBC was expected to coax farmers to submit to modern methods in the dark days of post-war rationing. So in the opening episodes, Dan Archer retires his two shire horses, Blossom and Boxer, to make way for the tractor.

The horoscope for the first broadcast (11am45, January 1 1951) lacks fiery passion and high drama and is stacked with practical, earthy Capricorn, with innovative Uranus prominent again. Capricorn is a conventional, conservative sign, famous for longevity and improving with age, and astrologers reckon that the Goat gets younger and hornier as it gets older. In addition to strong earth, The Archers also has a principled Mars in Aquarius and a Libra Moon. These air signs love people, putting an emphasis on social values and being part of a community.

Vanessa Whitburn has been producer since 1991 and she is a lively Sagittarian Archer herself. She connects with the programme's Libran Moon through her serious Saturn and tough- minded Mars, giving it a hard edge of authenticity when it comes to the realistic worries of country people. Libra often has a problem with balance, however, and Whitburn admits she has sometimes failed to get this right in the past. Her feminism has led to a long-running spat with a former producer, William Smethurst, headlined in The Telegraph (9/9/96) as an "everyday story of Leftist tripe". Similar questions of political correctness have now resurfaced with Lucas Madakane, a new character from South Africa, and the big, unanswered question, "Is he black?' The listener is never quite sure because nothing is explicitly stated, but how real would this non-comment be in a real-life Ambridge? Mark Lawson (16/2/01 Guardian) believes that "Ambridge's racism, like its defecation, may be occurring out of earshot" and that the programme gets its messages across with subtle, rather than blatant references - "The Archers is playing a complicated and fascinating game with our attitudes to race". On the other hand, Daily Telegraph readers may switch off in droves. As always, getting the right balance is never easy for a Libran Moon.

Vanessa Whitburn's horoscope shows controversy this autumn and she may decide to come out fighting and push social realism even further. The programme could also be in the media spotlight and have celebrity profile in the latter half of 2002. So are we heading for another fifty years of life in Ambridge? The Archers has such a dignified horoscope, there is no obvious sign of it running out of steam - ever. Da di-dum di-dum di-dum ...

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