The Archers is a British radio soap which claims to be one of the longest running in the world. Billed originally as an "everyday story of country folk" the early storylines were a flimsy excuse for a sort of agricultural extension service of the air, passing advice onto farmers. Later this function slipped to the background behind more sophisticated human interest stories revolving around rural life, although the plots still occasionally feature oddly technical dialogues. We sometimes recommend it to foreign visitors as an introduction to the milder issues and current language of contemporary British life.
I have been listening intermittently since the late 60s, and for the last 20 years my routine when home on Sunday mornings has been to take a bath whilst listening to the omnibus edition. This morning I did not listen. I doubt that this will shake or even reach the BBC establishment, and I am not sure how long my resolution will last, but I was boycotting the programme because of the re-casting of a lead character, Tom Archer, who after an improbable and highly compressed plotline leading to him abandoning his bride-to-be at the alter, fled to Canada, to return played by somebody else.
Initially I put this recasting down to managerial incompetence; or rather, from my imagined perspective of what it is like inside the BBC, to shock tactics of this kind being one of the few ways that allows ambitious producers to get noticed within the conservative Radio 4 channel on which the Archers features. In fact it turns out that it is worse than that: Tony Archer, Tom's fictional father, himself recently recast without too much attention to continuity of voice or personality, turns out to be the real-life father of the actor who is now to play Tom. This should have triggered the alarm bells within BBC management; that however justifiable in abstract this decision to recast might seem to insiders, in practice it is a decision that could not be publicly justified.
Why is this important, at least in a minor key? Because to a certain class of person like me, possibly now under threat, the BBC represents an essential part of what it is to be British, and Radio 4, the talk and entertainment channel, is the Ur-BBC, a potential future last bastion against a possible right-wing dismemberment of the corporation, both reassuring and educating in great breadth and depth. Of course this leads to conservatism and the Radio 4's audience has become both champion and jailer of what the channel is doing in detail at any given time, making change difficult. I am sympathetic to the BBC management in general over this conservative pressure, but there are cases and there are cases, and those who get into running the Archers might recognise is that it is not a blank slate for the flamboyantly creative, but part of the reassurance and education and continuity which the host channel symbolises. Perhaps we go to the Archers first of all for reassurance - perhaps for similar reasons that people of a certain age like me read Wodehouse at times of minor stress, although in the Archers we do have a sense of the progress of events, like reading a newspaper five years late. An incident like Tom's recasting, and the many small signals of resistance to it like this, shows us how much reassurance we need and how much the familiar can contribute to the nation's basic wellbeing.