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Keeping up with the Archers; The Archers archive has provided rich pickings for its scriptwriter Jo Toye, says Emily Lambert.

LIKE Bruce Forsyth, roast dinners and the Queen's speech, The Archers is a British institution. Forget Corrie or EastEnders, the 12-minute drama which is broadcast every week-night on BBC Radio 4 is hands down the longest-running serial in the world.

But considering the hundreds of storylines that are played out every year, mistakes are surely inevitable. Writers must occasionally get a character's favourite dish wrong or forget that a family has a pet? Yet according to Archers scriptwriter Jo Toye, the solution has been simple. Almost 60 years ago, the team began an archive which recorded everything that happened in Ambridge, the mythical English village where the series is set.

What started as a collection of hand-written notes on index cards kept in a set of miniature wooden filing drawers, is today a burgeoning record of Ambridge life stored on a searchable computer database.

"Not just major events, like a plane crashing into Dan's barley, but the fact that Dan smoked a pipe, was vice-president of the cricket club and always wore a night-shirt, never pyjamas," says Jo.

So meticulously has the archive been maintained, that it's provided Jo with an invaluable resource - and inspiration - for several books, including her latest, The Archers Miscellany. It has also enabled her to write five novelisations, including a trilogy re-telling the main storylines from 1951-2000 for the programme's 50th anniversary. Then in 2001, she co-wrote The Archers Encyclopaedia.

"What bothered me over the years was the neglect of this potential Tutankhamun's tomb. Some of its treasures make it out on-air but thousands more little gems are buried away: unless I excavated them, they might simply be forgotten. And so the idea for the book was born.

"Digging back through the cards presented joys and sorrows. The joy of finding, in full, Marjorie Antrobus' recipe for Yemenite pickle and the fact that there were so many recorded mentions of Nigel's jackets had to be set against the frustration of the 'lost years' of the Fete and Flower and Produce show."

Jo's love affair with the radio soap began in 1980, as a young university graduate finding her first job as a production assistant for the BBC.

"I'd come to The Archers late, because we'd lived abroad in my childhood. My father was in the diplomatic service, so we were four years in the Middle East and when we came back to Britain, I was 13, so I was straight into Top Of The Pops and Radio 1. You know, Radio 4, what was that?" says the 52-year-old.

"I first heard the programme at university, when I shared a house with people who'd grown up on it and for whom, away from parents and the dreaded conformity they represented, now found it a sort of comfort blanket.

"But I still had little concept of the significance of the first script I worked on in the studio - the death of Doris; mother of Phil, mother-in-law of Peggy and 'Gran' to the rising generation - Shula, David, and Elizabeth.

"I did realise it when a distraught listener phoned to ask where to send the wreath."

As a young production assistant, who had vague ambitions of being a writer, Jo was intrigued by the show's history - and lucky enough to see how the script editing process worked, which would prove crucial to her career.

"Working as a PA was a fantastic education because in those days, and it does seem like another age, the scripts all had to be physically retyped.

"The writers sent them through the post in hard copy, pre-computers. They had to be retyped onto stencils and then photo-statted, so I was seeing what the script editor was cutting out."

After four years, Jo plucked up the courage to write a script - which she left anonymously on the editor's desk.

"When a writer left the following spring, I joined the writing team and soon had the joy of adding to the archive myself."

Back in the 1980s, The Archers archive was typed and over the years, Jo has dealt with every possible human drama from birth, love and marriage, to death, betrayal and jealousy, as well as rape, racism, drug abuse and abortion.

"The tensions of family life under stress from illness, young children, elderly parents, lack of money, opportunity or housing have to be woven in with cows with bloat, and Brookfield's new pasture system in individual episodes lasting just twelve and a half minutes," says Jo.

The series also prides itself on weaving in topical stories, despite the episodes being pre-recorded as far as six weeks ahead.

"We basically do topical inserts for extreme weather, because we're agricultural, for farming emergencies - Foot and Mouth was a particular nightmare - and, of course, the criterion is whether it's in our part of the country, which is notionally Gloucestershire/Worcestershire."

The Archers is known for its cameo appearances, with Dame Judi Dench, Terry Wogan and Alan Titchmarsh all popping up on the show.

Since the 1950s, the show has had to move with the times.

"Farmers now have to be businessmen, many spend a lot more time on the computer than they do on their tractors. And the make-up of the village has changed. We have an Asian character and it's no secret we dramatised racial attacks on her when she moved to the area."

Jo reveals that her favourite episode to write was the 15,000th, where Ruth was on her way to Oxford to start an affair with Sam the herdsman.

"I knew there would be lots of attention on that episode and a lot hung on it for everyone. It was a wonderful example of where I put my own experience into the story - in a small way.

"My daughter was at Oxford and I was so fed up of sitting on the ringroad because of roadworks, with a car load of student stuff, I had Ruth desperately held up there to rack up the tension - and people said, 'This is so accurate'."

Jo freely admits that working on the show has been a labour of love, which at times has taken its toll on her family life. But she wouldn't change her job for the world.

"You can't get away from The Archers and I don't want to get away - it's absolutely never dull. I'm amazed that people tell me anything, because even the smallest anecdote can go into the programme."

The Archers Miscellany by Joanna Toye is published by BBC Books, priced pounds 9.99


Joanna Toye
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 21, 2009
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