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A funny and fascinating insight into the writing and research behind the world's longest-running drama series. Graham Harvey combined his extensive knowledge of farming with a superlative writing talent to be both agricultural advisor and script writer on The Archers for over 34 years. A must for all Archers listeners
Tim Bentinck

Underneath The Archers: Nature’s secret agent on Britain’s longest-running drama

Graham Harvey
Status: published
Publication Date: TBC
  • Hardback
  • Signed Hardback
    Signed Hardback£30.00
  • Ebook£10.00
  • Bookmark£2.00
  • The Forgiveness of Nature£20.00

    A hardback copy of The Forgiveness of Nature , Graham's classic book on the history and influence of grass on human civilsation, first published in 2001. STRICTLY LIMITED TO 50

  • Mug£15.00

    A ceramic mug to accompany your Archers omnibus listening, available exclusively from Unbound

  • Tea Towel£20.00

    A limited edition 100% cotton tea-towel, for those important Archers moments in the kitchen, exclusive to Unbound.

  • Cider Shed Launch Party£60.00

    Two tickets to a real life launch on a farm featuring Q&A with Graham, local cider and sustainably farmed buffet food. Venue and guests TBC. LIMITED TO 50.

A funny and fascinating insight into the writing and research behind the world's longest-running drama series. Graham Harvey combined his extensive knowledge of farming with a superlative writing talent to be both agricultural advisor and script writer on The Archers for over 34 years. A must for all Archers listeners
Tim Bentinck

Much-loved radio drama The Archers has been at the heart of British life for over seventy years, and the momentous events and changes of this time have all found a place in Ambridge. For more than three decades, scriptwriter Graham Harvey was the man behind the show’s farming storylines, writing over 600 episodes and crafting some of its most memorable moments: the Great Flood, the trashing of Brian’s GM crop, the loss of the Grundy family farm.

In this book Graham interweaves personal memories of these moments with extracts from the scripts he created, offering behind-the-scenes details of how key characters and plotlines were developed, keeping pace with the real changes taking place in village and farm life. He also explores the part the show played in setting Britain on its disastrous transition from small-scale, sustainable farming to industrial agriculture. Could it now help guide the nation back to the nature-friendly, planet-saving methods we so desperately need?

Underneath The Archers relates a personal drama, too: how Graham uncovered his father’s dark, wartime secret, the trauma which was to blight their family life. The insecurities of his youth gave Graham a deep attachment to the fictional community he was creating. The reassurance he found was in a love for England: its land, its soil, its farming culture – a love that found its perfect expression in the world of Ambridge and its inhabitants.

'As hilarious, charming, eccentric, informative, addictive and delightful as the show itself' Stephen Fry


It’s a wet Saturday in early March and the rain’s coming down in stair-rods. Every so often the gusty wind hurls torrents at the windows of Brookfield farmhouse. No on inside takes much notice. They have other things to fret about.

Following David Archer's autocratic decision to call-off the planned move to a new farm in the north-east, everyone's feeling hurt and angry, especially Ruth and Pip. As the rain lashes the window panes, the atmosphere in the kitchen is toxic. Resentment hangs in the air, as thick as the aroma of Jill’s weekend baking. As I eavesdrop on the family’s discomfort, I can't help but feel a small glow of satisfaction. It’s me that’s bought them to this. Not a bad job, if I say so myself.

Though they don't yet know it, the family is about to suffer a blow far more momentous than the dashing of their removal plans. Their land and home are about to be engulfed in a flood that will put their lives in danger and severely test their courage and resourcefulness.

It won't be just this one family that are put at risk. The entire village community is about to be hit by the deluge, making dozens of them homeless and calling for the wartime spirit of dogged grit and determination to see them through. We are about to test our much-loved characters to destruction, to put them through an ordeal that will change their lives for ever.

It had been the idea of Archers’editor Sean O'Connor. He was keen that, early in his tenure, we should remind ourselves and our listeners of what you might call its 'founding myth'. Somewhere out there in the green and leafy shires there existed a rural community which enshrined all those virtues we like to think of as particularly English – tolerance, humour, courage, endurance, self-sacrifice.

We would put our characters under extreme pressure and show how they more than rose to the occasion. We'd see a resurgence of the wartime spirit – a sense of 'whatever gets thrown at us, we'll all pull together and come through.' There'd be individual acts of heroism, kindness and generosity. Characters we thought we knew would behave in unexpected ways to help others. We'd remind ourselves that when the chips are down, we English can be relied upon to come together and help one other.

Sean shared my view that farming communities had their own distinctive qualities. There aren't many jobs where your home is your place of business and where, if you have animals, you're required to work three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, rain or shine. There aren't jobs where a seemingly random natural event like an outbreak of cattle disease can threaten both your livelihood and your home. Such things give farmers special qualities of resourcefulness and self-reliance as well as strong family bonds.

It was a farmer who once told me that there was nothing in nature so hard to change as the farmer's mind. It's a job where people live daily with the possibility of disaster. The chance may be small but it's always there. You'd want to make sure those aspects of your life and business you could control were securely locked down.

Now we were about to present our central farming family with the biggest challenge of their lives, a sudden, catastrophic flood that would reveal the fearsome power of nature and show how easily it could overwhelm the flimsy defences of riverside communities. Sean and I had planned a year-long build up to the story. The idea was to set up a totally different threat to the farm, a diversionary tale, a false plotline that would ultimately lead to rancour and dissent within the family.

The aim of the story was to point up the quiet strength of this ordinary village community. To do this we had first to point out its fault lines. Its strength would emerge at a moment of great danger just as it had at the outbreak of war. The more arguing and in-fighting we could see in the days and weeks leading up to it, the more heroic the response would seem.

The first challenge was to come up with a plausible threat to Brookfield Farm, one that would undermine family morale. We needed them to be a low point when catastrophe struck. Sean's idea was for a road scheme. Short of the natural disaster we had in mind, what could be more terrifying than a letter from the council proposing a new road through the middle of the farm?

Here's what might make the family contemplate leaving Brookfield. They were the show's First Family, Archersroyalty, farmers Ruth and David, their offspring Pip, Josh and Ben, plus David's mum, Jill, Brookfield's own 'Queen Mum'. For the family to move from the farm would be like the Queen leaving Buckingham Palace. It was inconceivable. Britain would never be the same.

Yet, somehow, we would have to believe the family might actually take the momentous step. To the BBC's programme managers it would have been unthinkable, of course, but we who lived daily in Ambridge had to take our characters to that point. If the farm were about to be bisected by a new, fast road, running the place would become a nightmare. A shock proposal might just be enough to persuade the family to move.

We'd have them start by joining the village campaign to fight the monstrous plan, but in the end, they’d decide that moving to a new farm in Northumberland – close to Ruth's family home and where her mother Heather still lived – would give them a better future. Somehow, we had to convince Archers fans that the move really might happen. I'm not sure we achieved this but at least they seemed content to go along with the story and see where it led.

The key was to ensure each character had his or her own iron logic for wanting to make the move. By the time David made his high-handed decision to pull the plug on the plan, everyone except Jill was in favour. If I'd been able to call in at Brookfield and interview the key characters about their hopes for the future, these are the kinds of things they might have said.

Pip Archer, 22. It’s not great leaving all my friends and family. But I’ve got to be realistic. Farming’s my future, I know that. And doing it on a farm that’s been split in half by a stupid road makes no sense. With the compensation and the sale value we get on this place we’ll have enough cash to put up a brand-new, purpose-built dairy building on the new farm. Which I’ll get a chance to design. And since it’s me that’s going to be running the business before very much longer, it’s a no-brainer.

Ruth Archer, 46. It’s going to be a wrench leaving here, obviously. What with Jill and the family all around us. Not to mention all the wonderful friends we’ve made over the years. But thinking what’s best for the future – especially for Pip and Josh and Ben – we’ve got no choice really. It’s got to be a fresh start. And to be honest it’ll be a great relief living close to mum. She’s getting quite frail these days and I’ll be able to take better care of her.

David Archer, 55. Quite honestly this has been the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. My grand-father Dan set up this farm. My father Philip spent his entire life looking after these fields. And now I’ve decided to walk away. It’ll be like tearing a bit of my heart out. But farming’s about hope and the future, not being stuck in the past. That’s why I know it’s time to move on. Besides it’s not about my generation any more. Our time’s coming to an end. The land needs a new generation now – Pip, Josh’s and Ben’s generation.

Josh Archer, 17. Moving to the new farm’s going to be a great opportunity. To be fair I’m still going to be spending a lot of time in this area. I’ll be keeping the business going, you know, doing the used farm machinery. Only now I’m going to be able to set up a branch up north, maybe based at Hexham Market. There’s a whole, untapped market up there. This is going to be getting me close to national coverage. The sky’s going to be the limit. I don’t want to big it up too much, but I reckon there’s a good chance I’ll be retiring by the time I’m forty.

Jill Archer, 84. I’m going to miss them all terribly when they go, I know that. But there’s no question of me going with them. I couldn’t dream of leaving Ambridge. It holds to many memories for me of life with my Phil. We’ve shared so many good times – and hard times too – in this village. And now he’s buried at St Stephen’s, where he played the organ for so many years. How could I possibly leave this place? I wish them all the luck in the future, obviously. But it can’t be with me.

So everything was in place for the Archer family to make their historic move from Brookfield and from Ambridge. A new farm had been chosen in Northumberland and contracts were being drawn up. The sale of Brookfield, under threat from the new road scheme, was being arranged by the local auctioneers. A fleet of specialist cattle lorries had been hired to move the dairy herd north.

Everyone was getting excited about the new chapter that was about to open up in the life of the family. Then David dropped the bombshell. He had changed his mind. When it came to the crunch, he couldn’t actually contemplate walking away from the ancestral family farm. He’d come across an old farm diary of his grand-father Dan. It had reminded him of the continuity of life on the land. A commitment of care lavished on a small corner of England that went on from generation to generation.

He’d also discovered a model farm, a favourite toy from his boyhood. Here was a reminder of his own personal promise to care for the land at Brookfield, in good times and in bad. Whatever the difficulties imposed by the new road – if it went through – he had a duty to make the best of things. To go on farming the land as best he could.

This was the reason for the toxic atmosphere at Brookfield on that wet Saturday afternoon in March. David had announced to the family that the long planned-for move to the new farm was off. Like it or not they’d be staying at Brookfield. Understandably the family were enraged with him.

For Ruth it was a decision that undermined the whole basis of their marriage. Their lives together had been a partnership, in the farm business as well as in family matters. That he’d been prepared to back-track on an agreement arrived at by the entire family amounted to a betrayal. Pip saw it in much the same way. Her own hopes and ambitions for their farming future had been dashed by her father’s decision. Only Jill, the family matriarch, was pleased to learn of David’s last-minute change-of-mind.

As the rain lashed against the window panes of the solid, red-brick farmhouse, the family tensions looked set to explode into outright hostility. Capricious Fate had another shock in store though. A breathless Pip came bursting into the kitchen screaming an alarm. Floodwater was gushing up through the drainage system of the milking parlour. At the rate it was coming in the whole place would soon be under water.

As it happened, I nearly missed the Great Ambridge Flood Disaster. A couple of years earlier I’d stepped down from my job as agricultural editor after eighteen years non-stop. I was feeling in need of a break.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the job. For a farming nerd like me, who also happened to love The Archers, it would have been hard to beat. I got to shape the lives and destinies of characters who I'd come to know so well they were like good friends. At the same time, I got to be a sort of fantasy farmer, a role I found endlessly interesting.

But working on a daily soap can at times feel like walking a treadmill. Each month I was expected to produce half a dozen or so new storylines. This meant coming up with the initial ideas, researching them in fine detail, then turning them into crafted storylines that the script-writers could grab hold of and build into their weekly story structures.

After eighteen years I was finding the stories harder to unearth. I asked Vanessa, the boss, if I could go back to my old job as script-writer. But Fate was to intervene again, this time in the form of a new editor, Sean O’Connor. He'd worked on the show as a producer twenty years earlier. When he called me up and asked me if I wanted my old job back, it was hard to turn him down.

I knew from his first spell on the show that Sean was a gifted story-teller with a wide literary knowledge. I also knew he had an instinct for producing powerful dramatic scenes, sometimes when they weren't exactly appropriate.

He'd once directed a scene of mine in which Adam Macy, farmer and strawberry-grower, had got a team together to unroll the polythene covering over the metal frames of a poly-tunnel. To protect the covering from winter damage, it gets taken off in the autumn and put back again the following spring. It’s a job that’s best done when there's little wind.

I’d written a note that there should be a light breeze blowing. Sean read the scene and decided it had untapped dramatic potential. He turned it into the storm scene from Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd.

‘We need to give the scene more jeopardy,' Sean told the actors’ Sound effects for gales were called up. Polythene sheeting was brought into the studio and flapped about wildly. The actors were directed to deliver their lines as if they were shouting over the storm.

Editor Vanessa Whitburn was horrified. ‘It's ludicrous,' she told him. 'Adam would have listened to the forecast and put off the job until the weather improved. This makes him look an idiot. You’ll have to record it again.’

While Sean’s tempest gave the writers a laugh, we all knew his instinct to explore the dramatic potential of every scene was spot on. Under his stewardship, the programme, I felt sure, was set for a golden period. And so it turned out.

The Great Flood was to be his first big story. In researching it, he and I went with script-writer Tim Stimpson on a series of visits to farms bordering the River Severn, all of which had been inundated in recent times.

On one beautiful farm on a loop in the river close to Upton-on-Severn, farmer Oliver Surman told us how flood-water had once filled the farm drainage system and come gushing out into the pit of the milking parlour. This is the sunken part where the milker stands, giving him or her eye-level contact with the business end of the cow.

With the usual initiative of farmers, Oliver and his herd manager found a novel way of halting the inflow of water to the parlour. They had to move fast. If the flood-water had reached the milk pump it would have made the milking machine unusable, causing much distress and discomfort to the cows.

In the middle of the farmyard was a large drain cover over a concrete chamber. This was where the flood-water was entering the drain from the parlour. Instead of taking washing water out, the drain was now providing an entry point for the flood water. If a way could be found to block it, the ingress of water would be halted. But how to block it? The only possible plug Oliver could find was his young son’s toy football. Partially deflated, it might just jam into the drain-pipe and be held there by the pressure of the flood-water.

To fit the make-shift plug, Oliver had to hold his colleague – who happened to be of slighter build - by the ankles, then lower him head-first into the chamber. Somehow the young manager succeeded in stuffing the toy ball into the drain. It worked a treat. The flow of water into the milking parlour all but stopped.

In the Ambridge flood we re-enacted this story exactly, with Eddie Grundy being dangled by his ankles as he blocks off the drainage pipe. Recording the scene in the studio, actor Trevor Harrison tried hanging upside down from a table while being held in place by a studio manager. The idea was to reproduce the sort of strangulated tones of a human being in that contorted position.

As he waited to deliver his scripted lines, Harrison quipped: ‘I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure that performing upside down isn’t mentioned in my contract.’

To which the studio manager retorted: ‘Stop moaning or we’ll start chucking water over you. Let’s go for total realism!’

The Ambridge flood set out to show how an ordinary village community would cope when faced with an existentialist threat and with no help coming from the outside world. In a foretaste of life in our new, over-heated world, the flood-waters of the River Am rose higher than at any time in the past. Or so farmer Adam Macy concluded as he pulled drowned sheep from a field that had always been considered safe from flooding.

Today scientists confirm Adam’s observation. Climate-enhanced flood events, they report, have already started happening in Britain.

To add to the drama of the Ambridge flood, the soap’s usual time convention was temporarily dropped. In normal times an Archers episode covers events that have happened in the previous twenty-four hours. For this particular story-line a whole week’s episodes (six) were used to cover a period of just eighteen hours, from Saturday afternoon until Sunday morning.

To further ramp up the drama, the script-writer was asked to abandon the soap’s usual writing style. Archersdialogue is unlike everyday speech in that characters tend to speak in complete sentences and allow space for the other side to reply. In telling the story of the flood, characters would speak in half-formed sentences and phrases, as in real speech. And they’d frequently talk over each other just as people do in everyday conversation.

The flood drama, when it aired, proved as inspirational as it was gripping. Faced with sudden danger, our village heroes revealed depths of courage and resourcefulness we’d seldom glimpsed before. Here are some of the stories that were played out on that fateful weekend.

  • Helped by her cousin Tom Archer, farmer Pip stands waist-deep in rising floodwater as she struggles to disconnect the milk pump from the wall of the flooded milking parlour.
  • Having moved cattle to higher ground and safety, David helps in the rescue of villagers trapped in their flooded cottages.
  • Jill Archer runs a refuge centre in the village church, which stands just above the floodwater. Alan the vicar, tolls the church bell, a call of hope to the distressed villagers. There’s safety and comfort beneath the ancient tower of St Stephen’s.
  • Farmer Adam Macy saves estate manager Charlie Thomas from certain drowning when he becomes trapped in the grating of a flooded drainage culvert. He then carries out emergency resuscitation on the young manager.
  • Vicar Alan Franks pulls the elderly Freda Fry from her crashed car after it’s been swept away in the rising waters.
  • Rob Titchener, later to be exposed as the cruel abuser of his wife Helen, shows great bravery in rescuing livery-owner Shula Hebden Lloyd who has been trapped at The Stables by rising flood-waters.

On the morning after the night of storm and flood, David Archer and daughter Pip - newly re-united after the dramatic events of the night – are walking together on Lakey Hill, where they’ve gone to check on the Hereford cattle. The storm clouds have gone and the sun has started to shine through. There’s the sound of a distant helicopter. The outside world is at last coming to the aid of the beleaguered riverside community.

Together father and daughter look down on the village, where many of the houses and cottages are now surrounded by water. They’re horrified that so many of their friends and neighbours have been made homeless. At the same time, they know this is the place they belong. For all the appeal of a fresh start, far away from the everyday troubles of life in Ambridge, this is the land they are bound to, by ties that are stronger than dreams.

The story had had its moments of melodrama, but all the same I was proud of what we'd done. We'd reminded ourselves and our audience of the strength of our communities. When adversity strikes, people draw closer together in an instinctive need for comfort and to offer help to others. It's not an especially British virtue, of course. People respond to adversity in much the same way everywhere. It's a mark of our common humanity.

That said, the community spirit always appears strong in Britain at times of crisis. We saw it at work in the country during the dark days of World War Two. When the peace came, we saw it resurgent again in the clamour for a socially reforming government. It re-emerged powerfully in a series of flooding incidents around the country, and during the Covid emergency its outpouring has been extraordinary.

I was proud of our story for another reason. It was a reminder that, for all our smart technology and brilliant science, we remain at the mercy of elemental forces of nature. Our complex and sophisticated societies can still be paralysed by storms, deluges or a tiny virus. In this sense the Great Ambridge Flood was pure Thomas Hardy. Fate had arbitrarily intervened to thwart the plans and hopes of men and women.

It set me thinking. What other consequences might this catastrophic event have on the residents of Ambridge? Could it have set in train a series of seemingly unrelated events that nevertheless arose from that first catastrophe? Might the village be in for a run of misfortunes? The idea began to seem pleasingly Hardy-esque.

A few weeks after the flood, cows in the mega-dairy at Berrow Farm were struck with a mystery disease. Dozens of animals suffered a kind of muscular paralysis and many died, despite the heroic efforts of manager Charlie Thomas to save them. Joe Grundy pronounced it 'a terrible plague' that would sweep through the village taking who knows how many animals.

The plague turned out to be botulism, a muscle-wasting condition caused by a bacterium that proliferates in decaying carcasses. The source was traced to a batch of silage containing the rotting carcass of a dog. It seems the dead animal had been swept up with the grass during silage making. The only missing dog reported in the village had been Lynda Snell's beloved mongrel Scruff, which had disappeared during the flood, much to its owner's distress.

Out of kindness, no one told Lynda the cause of the mystery cattle disease. Everyone was convinced the beloved pet had drowned in the flooded pasture, only to be concealed when the grass grew up around him after the flood-water had receded. It was a gruesome story but somehow it illustrated the apparently random acts of Fate.

There was a happy outcome of sorts, though not for the infected cows. The following Christmas Eve Lynda heard a scratching sound against her back door. When she opened it, there was her beloved Scruff, bedraggled and emaciated, but alive and clearly overjoyed to be home.

So far so Thomas Hardy, but by then I'd had another idea. One of my favourite works of the author is his story of Michael Henchard, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard's an impoverished hay trusser who sells his wife to a sailor at Heydon Fair. Decades later, when he's become wealthy and successful as a corn dealer, the shocking event in his past returns to haunt him and bring about his demise.

In my days as a farming journalist, I met a lot of characters like Hardy's mayor. Mostly men, they rose to prominence in their local areas where they'd done well in some rural business or other. This might include dealing in farm machinery, livestock or agrochemicals.

Sometimes they were simply farmers whose land had been ear-marked for development, an instant route to riches, better even than winning the lottery. I know a couple of farmers who ended up as big property tycoons simply because they owned land near an expanding town. Most were well-meaning if flawed characters, much like the rest of us.

In Ambridge I’d always thought Brian Aldridge had a touch of Michael Henchard about him. Both were successful in their agrarian ventures. Both were highly esteemed in their local communities – Henchard in Hardy’s Wessex and Aldridge in the BBC’s Borsetshire. Both are also deeply flawed.

There are obvious differences, of course. Henchard was a man of humble origins, who happened to make good through hard work and business acumen. Aldridge seems to have started off with a head start in the wealth stakes. Privately educated, he’s the son of well-off farmers. We don’t know exactly how they helped him get started, but we do know he was in a position to buy fifteen-hundred acres of prime West Midlands farmland without a mortgage at the age of just thirty-two.

There’s also the matter of past indiscretions. Early in his working life Henchard had sold his wife. As Archers regular listeners know, Aldridge has long been a serial philanderer and womaniser. Not quite the same, I know, but it got me thinking. What if there were something awful in Aldridge’s past? Something that even today might bring him down.

When I took over as agricultural editor, my predecessor, Anthony Parkin, told me that in financial terms Aldridge was ‘bomb-proof’; so secure financially as to be protected from the everyday vicissitudes of life. He seemed to enjoy a charmed existence in his private affairs, too.

Back in 2001, when I was still getting to know Brian, we sent him on a study tour to Hungary. He joined a group of business people who were thinking of investing in Hungarian agriculture. On his way home he stopped over in Brussels for a secret liaison with the latest object of his desire, Siobhan Hathaway, the village doctor’s wife.

I’m watching them from a discrete distance as they have dinner in a smart Brussels restaurant. Outside the streets are bright with the lights of Christmas. Siobhan seems bemused that Brian has been able to track her down to her hotel.

‘You really are the most extraordinary man,’ she tells him. ‘There aren’t many who’d have dropped in on the off-chance.’

‘I was on my way home. It seemed rather a waste to fly on when I knew you’d be here on your own.’

‘And I always thought you farmers were stick-in-the-muds?’

‘That’s where you’re wrong. Farmers are risk takers. Some of the biggest empires in history have been built by agricultural societies. It’s because we have a mission to tidy up the planet. It starts with the farm next door. Then the neighbouring village. And so it goes on.’

‘Until you’ve taken over the world?’


‘And is that what you’re doing now? The trip to Hungary?’

‘Let’s just say I’m eyeing up the prospects.’

‘And how are they looking?’

‘Very promising I’d say. In fact, I’m actively considering an investment.’

He gazes into her eyes, judging the reaction. The waiter comes by with their cognacs.

‘Monsieur-dame.’ He sets them down on the table. Brian reaches into his pocket and places a small box in front of her.

‘For me?’

‘Of course. Well go on, open it.’

Siobhan removes the lid and takes out a jewel-encrusted broach. Its beauty makes her gasp.

‘Oh, Brian,’ she whispers.

‘ I’ll pin it on. There we are…’

‘How does it look?’

‘Splendid. It suits your elegant jacket.’

‘Thank you. You’re very sweet.’

They kiss. Then Brian proposes a toast.

‘So, what should we drink to?’

‘How about a spirit of adventure?’

‘Perfect. May it lead us to unexpected places.’

It leads them in fairly quick time to Siobhan’s hotel room. And then to a passionate, clandestine affair that lasts many weeks. And finally, the following autumn, to the birth of a baby boy, Ruairi.

Eventually Brian is forced to confess all to his wife Jennifer. He has no choice. His step-daughter Debbie has pieced together the story from snippets she’s learned from her friend Siobhan. She tells Brian if he doesn’t come clean to Jennifer, then she will tell her mother the truth.

A bitterly hurt Jennifer gives Brian an ultimatum. Either he agrees not to see Siobhan again or their marriage is over. After a wretched few days of soul-searching, Brian makes his decision. At Birmingham airport he bids a final farewell to Siobhan and Ruairi as they depart for Ireland and the embrace of her family. Brian drives home to his anguished wife.

But the emotional turmoil is not yet over for Jennifer. Four years after the birth of Ruairi, she and Brian learn that the boy’s mother is terminally ill. The only options for his up-bringing are Siobhan’s career-minded sister, Niamh, or his eighty-year-old grand-mother. Not ideal, either of them. But there’s no one else. Unless, of course, Jennifer will agree to raise Brian’s love-child as if he were one of their own.

Under pressure from Brian, she does agree. The boy makes his home in the grand farmhouse, except when he’s away at his posh boarding school, that is.

I wondered if this might be the moment for Fate to deal a cruel hand to Ambridge’s own sun king. Not for his personal indiscretions – that was a family matter. But the way he' been abusing his soils, that was very much my business.

As the closest Ambridge has to a specialist arable farmer, Brian had sprayed more tonnes of toxic pesticides on his land than any other Ambridge landowner. Since Home Farm also held the contract to farm the Estate land for many years, he had spread his poisons far and wide. Over the four decades he’d farmed in Ambridge, the chemical broadsides would have done enormous damage to the soils and wildlife of the village.

What act of retribution might have the ring of poetic justice about it? I thought back to my days as a farming journalist in the Seventies. I must have visited dozens of farms where they'd maintained unofficial dumping grounds for old bits of machinery, empty chemical containers and sometimes old oil drums. Often these alternative tips were located on former quarry faces or filled-in ponds.

As the regulations on the disposal of industrial wastes were tightened up, stories began to appear in the press about haulage contractors and landowners being fined for illegally dumping and burying toxic wastes.

What if the young Brian Aldridge had been part of such a scam, I wondered, back at the time he started farming, when cash flows were probably tight? What if the Ambridge flood of three years earlier had disturbed some long forgotten stash of rusting oil drums? What if their contents had started to spill out and contaminate the ground water?

On a cold, bright January day, Kirsty Miller – a keen wild swimmer and conservationist – is skinny dipping in the River Am with her friend Roy Tucker. Suddenly they become aware that they're surrounded by dead fish. Environment Agency investigators are called in. The experts quickly identify a substance known as TCE – a highly toxic industrial degreaser. It's soon traced to a hidden dump of chemical drums at Home Farm.

Brian’s reputation crashes to earth like a burned out rocket. The clean-up costs are soon heading towards four million pounds. In a subsequent court action for ‘causing or knowingly permitting’ the discharge of contaminants into the river, he pleads guilty and so narrowly escapes a gaol term. What he can't escape is the vilification of his neighbours and the village community.

He's fired from his post as chair of a major land company, and in a final ignominy, he's forced to sell off the family home to pay part of the debt. He and the long-suffering Jennifer are obliged to rent a small cottage next door to Kirsty Miller, who’d been the first to find the poisoned fish.

Unlike the heroes of great novels, popular soap characters seldom show any great contrition after their guilty secrets are revealed to the world. Audiences and script-writers like them to stay much as they are, eagerly anticipating the next act of mischief. So, while Aldridge lives in straitened circumstances, he doesn’t show much remorse. Just annoyance at having been found out.

Thanks to Sean, I'd succeeded in bringing something of Thomas Hardy into my storylines, the impact of a cold and merciless Fate. I'd used it to spread fear and confusion through village life, and to demolish (temporarily) one of the community's most powerful characters. What I didn't know was that Fate was about to strike me a shattering blow, too.

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