Underneath The Archers
By Graham Harvey
A powerful memoir by the environmental campaigner & former agricultural story editor of The Archers.
Saturday, 4 March 2023
A bright light darkened
The sad death of Jennifer Aldridge has been, for me, like losing an old and dear friend. I first got to know her back in the 1960s when, with my agricultural student mates, I started following life in Ambridge. The big story at the time was Jennifer and her baby; the single-mum with her short skirts and lipstick, determined to give Baby Adam the best possible start in life.
We had a lot of arguments over who the father might be, though none of us got it right. What we did end up with was a lot of respect for this brave, free-spirited young woman who dared to live life her own way.
Years later when I decided to try writing for The Archers, many of the sample scenes I sent to the BBC at Pebble Mill featured Jennifer and her philandering husband Brian. I based the characters – apart from the philandering - on a farming couple I knew in the small Wiltshire village where I lived for a time. They had a big farm and lived in an elegant Georgian farmhouse complete with swimming pool and tennis court.
Having grown up on a Reading council estate, I’d never before seen a lifestyle that opulent. Even so, the couple seemed determined to share their good fortune with other villagers. There were any number of poolside parties in summer, along with winter gatherings at which the old house echoed to the sounds of laughter and cheery discourse.
When I got to write The Archers for real, I recreated these happy scenes at Home Farm. At all of them, Jennifer was invariably at the heart of the action. An awesome cook, she was equally happy serving venison stew to the guns and beaters on shoot days as she was presenting a Sunday roast to the sometimes quarrelsome family members.
Family came front and centre in Jennifer’s order of how things should be. She was the true constant in all their lives, whether it was Kate discovering herself on the hippie trail, Adam weathering the squalls of working with his stepfather, or Alice battling with alcohol addiction. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in making herself a ‘real mum’ to Ruairi, offspring of Brian’s relationship with Siobhan Hathaway.
While her devotion to home and family was uncompromising, Jennifer was far from parochial in her outlook. She achieved much success as a writer, first as the author of two novels, and later as co-author of a much-praised book on the history of Ambridge. Her regular feature articles for the Borchester Echo showed she could turn her hand to journalism, too. Through these features she showed herself to be a shrewd observer of contemporary life and attitudes.
Sadly I have to admit that I played a part in her having to give up the farmhouse home she loved. In my storyline fish in the River Am suddenly start dying. Official investigations revealed the source of the pollution to be an illegal dump of toxic chemicals set up by Brian back in the 1970s. The aim of my story was to bring him down; a wrong-doing in early life was to return and haunt him, as in Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge.
When I dreamed up the story I never intended that Jennifer should lose her home. I imagined land would be sold to pay the massive clean-up costs. In the event the family partners decided the farmhouse should be sold too. With little complaint she was prepared to move with her husband – the cause of the catastrophe – into far more modest accommodation. It’s what you do for family, even when they’ve been selfish and stupid.
And now she’s gone. A bright flame has vanished from the Ambridge scene, like the beacon that once burned at the top of Lakey Hill. Our lives are a little greyer and colder as a result. We’ll miss her.
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Typical of Graham to move me enough to write something about the death of a fictional character I knew nothing about!
I'm not an Archers fan; I'm not sure why. I haven't listened much since 1970 when my grandmother died. I'd sometimes hear a few episodes in a row when I stayed with her. Dan and Doris were still key characters back then and my gran would sometimes tell me she hadn't forgiven the script writers for killing off in 1956 a member of the Archers family she loved, on the night ITV launched, in an attempt to lure the audience away from the BBC's new, commercial rival. This was also four years before I learned about organic farming and converted my farm. As a result, nothing conflicted with my views and I soaked up the government advice about intensifying our farms, as I was meant to do. My gran was also a fan of Mrs. Dale's Diary which aired in the afternoon and compared with that The Archers was really interesting!
My lack of interest over the last 53 years may be because, it's too close to home. Is that really how we talk to each other in the countryside? If so, I embarrassed. Despite being a farmer all my life, I don't warm that much to some aspects of country life, and on the few occasions I've been unable to get my hands out of the washing up bowl fast enough to remove my ear phones after the 7 o'clock news, the snippetts I've caught always seem to reflect the aspects I don't want to hear. These include the striking social inequalities, the snobery, the idle gossip, the predominant intensive farming and increasing commercial approach, the widespread support for field and blood sports and the fact that, in the past, when Walter Gabriel was the example of a backwards small holder, he was presented in a way that ensured no farmer worth his (or exceptionally rarely in those days) her salt, wanted to be like that. It probably is a pretty accurate reflection but as I live in that world, I look for something different from worlds I know nothing about.
But every time I hear about one of Graham's story lines, which I was never lucky enough to stumble across, I wish I'd had more patience and stuck it out. He clearly told a different story, many different stories, in fact, and ones with which I associate as a farmer who follows an agroecological approach and as a human being. And if I'd realised what an interesting character Jennifer Aldridge was, at least at the beginning, by the sound of it, I'd have been a fan and moved by and nterested in her life too.
Thanks Graham; you never fail to impress and educate me.
posted 6th March 2023