The Archers: a how-to listening guide

BBC Radio 4's The Archers has been making headlines for a brave domestic abuse story line, so here are some tips for listening newbies...

It is never too late to jump on a bandwagon. A lot of new sheep have recently joined the flock listening to BBC Radio 4’s The Archers thanks to the slow-burning and dramatic storyline of Rob Titchener’s abuse of his wife Helen, and her violent attack on him. New listeners, though, have a lot to keep up with. It can seem incongruous at first that major storylines of sex, death, and prison sit alongside cricket, cake, and the pigs escaping (again).

I must say, if you’ve only just started listening, you took your bloody time didn’t you? Still, to make things simpler for new arrivals to Ambridge, I have gathered all my radio drama wisdom to compile this list of tips for Archers newbies.

Don’t try and listen to all of it

Many Den of Geek readers will be accustomed to starting a new series at the beginning, even when you’re a few seasons behind, and catching up with the hype in just a couple of binge-watches. Well, I have news for you: you can’t give the late-starter Breaking Bad treatment to The Archers. It’s been going for nearly 66 years already. You can try, if you really want to, but before you reach Nigel Pargetter’s death, you’ll probably be dead yourself. Like any soap, it’s best to just dive in. You’ll pick it up as you go along.

Listen carefully to the voices

It’s not necessary to distinguish particular characters early on; all you need to know is who is a goody and who is a baddy. In this respect, the voice acting is bleeding obvious to help you out. Dead Ringers even parodied abusive Rob’s blood-curdlingly deep voice in their latest series. If you need visual aids, you could look at the BBC’s promo shots for each character. If they smile they’re probably alright; frowning means they can be frustrating but you’ll love them anyway; and sinister vacant stare means you will 100% want to murder that character within two weeks.

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Decide how you’re going to follow along

Many people enjoy setting aside their Sunday morning to enjoy the full Archers omnibus, but I personally prefer the episode premieres on weekday evenings. Alternatively there’s the podcast and the 2pm weekdays repeat. It’s vital that you choose the one that suits you best so that you can partake in the correct Twitter community. Joining in is easy, you just need to tweet a popular opinion like “I wish Ursula had been stabbed too” or “looking forward to this year’s village pantomime!” and new friends will instantly be yours.

Lost track of the plot? It’ll be back again soon

Sometimes The Archers is big event radio, but the rest of the time Ambridge can be stuck in a time loop where the same things happen on repeat. There’s always one or two young people who still say things like “that’s wicked!” and are having existential crises over whether to go to university or buy some sheep. There’s always a long-married couple having a dispute over one of their children or their finances. And there is always a character turning up to cause a new plot development who has never been mentioned before but is apparently part of the bordering-on-incestuous Ambridge family trees. Their arrival is normally signalled by the line “it’s good to be home after all these years!”

Don’t be fooled by the countryside capers – it gets political too

Helen’s trial aired last week, increasing awareness of domestic abuse and generating thousands of pounds in donations to Refuge. It also just so happens that Theresa May said in Wednesday’s PMQs that the government will look into exempting women’s refuges from a housing benefit cap. Not to detract from the MPs pushing for the exemption, but greater public interest in the issue because of The Archers can hardly have hurt their case. On a more regular basis, the often-overlooked lives and financial woes of Britain’s farmers get a spotlight, and current events are responded to with quick rewrites and re-recordings on the day of broadcast. It’s basically real life, with clunkier exposition.

Don’t try to get your friends into it

Nobody ever thinks that they are going to like The Archers. You don’t just wake up one morning and think “yeah I could do with a bit of agricultural community drama for fifteen minutes today.” It’s just something you drift into, whether you intended to or not, and its appeal is very hard to explain. Yes, you can try to convince friends that it’s a bit like a posh Emmerdale, a less ridiculous Midsomer Murders, or Broadchurch without the excessive staring at the sea. But the original educational purpose and perceived twee-ness make The Archers appear dull to outsiders, with about as much appeal as Gardeners Question Time (I hate that programme). Better to keep it between you, me, and 5 million other people for now.

Another link to that Refuge donations page, helping victims of domestic violence: