Underneath The Archers
Updated: Jan 5
Great to launch the Unbound campaign to get my new book published. I worked on The Archers for more than 30 years, as a script-writer and later as editor of the farming storylines. It was a time of huge change in the countryside as farming ditched the traditional family mixed farm in favour of large-scale, industrial operations. It seemed like progress at the time but right now it's starting to look like a tragic mistake.
When The Archers began back in 1951, our countryside was very different from the way it is today. We were overwhelmingly a nation of small, family farms. A land of small fields and hedgerows, of woodlands, marshes and village ponds. Britain was a country where wildlife flourished and village communities prospered. It was these communities – especially those in the countryside south of Birmingham – that inspired The Archers.
No one on the programme could have anticipated the show's instant popularity or the wave of public affection for its stars, Doris and Dan Archer, Phil and Christine, and of course Walter Gabriel. Within a few years half the adult population were tuning in each night. But out in the real countryside, farming was about to be hit by a hurricane – what's become known as industrial agriculture. Out came the hedges, copses and ponds. All were cleared for the machines that would work the new, open landscapes. Pigs, chickens, sometimes even cattle, were taken from the fields and shut up in factory-like sheds. Small farms disappeared. Skilled farm workers were made redundant in their tens of thousands.
On the radio life in Ambridge sounded very much the same. Which isn't to say the changes in farming weren't reflected in storylines. They were. I well remember researching the mega-dairy and later the giant pig unit that were destined to come to the village. But when all you get are disembodied voices, and you don't actually see change happening, it's easy to miss momentous social transformations. Like the severing of the age-old link between village life and the land.
Right now the shiny, efficient new farming methods don't look so great. We've known for decades the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that underpin them have destroyed wildlife and habitats on a massive scale. Britain is now officially one of the most wildlife-deprived nations on the planet. What's also clear is that our factory farms and intensive chemical methods are releasing carbon from the soil and deepening the climate crisis. Incredible though it may seem, the best way to fix our planet would be to bring back those sustainable farming methods of the post-war years.
We need the hedges, woods, meadows and marshes, landscapes that store carbon. Not the arable prairie landscapes that nitrates and pesticides are rapidly turning into deserts. We need poultry and grazing animals back on pasture again, helping the grasses and herbs to put carbon back into that greatest-of-all storage banks, the soil. In short we need the world to become more like The Archers. Bring it on, I say.
*Coming soon: What the current Archer clan are doing to bring nature back to the Ambridge farms