The cast of Radio 4’s The Archers have returned to the recording studio, heralding an end to the stream of monologues which upset some fans.
Over the summer, the long-running rural soap featured characters talking to themselves or holding one-way phone conversations, as Covid-19 forced the cast to record their scripts at home.
Some listeners called the new format “dreary” and “uninspiring”.
The complaints prompted an apology from Radio 4’s controller, Mohit Bakaya.
“I’m very proud of the team for keeping [the programme] going in incredibly difficult circumstances,” he told Radio 4’s Feedback programme last week.
“The challenges were tricky for The Archers; I accept totally that some people have not enjoyed the monologues and I’m sorry about that,” he said.
Bakaya said he had also been contacted by fans who enjoyed the monologues – but he hoped lapsed listeners would return to the show.
“We’re going to start moving back to The Archers we all know and love and I hope that those people, if there are any who have drifted away, will come back to find The Archers… in fine form.”
Why did the show change so drastically?
At the start of the lockdown, producers on The Archers said they had been forced to scrap “12 scripts and five weeks’ of storylines that were about to be written” in order to re-tool the programme.
Among their concerns were that many of the cast are elderly – June Spencer who plays Peggy Woolley is 101 – and were particularly susceptible to the virus.
Producers then started writing new stories, set in the fictional village of Ambridge, dealing with the arrival of coronavirus, that could be recorded remotely, often in the cast’s homes.
Other storylines included Tracy and Harrison competing to become captain of the village cricket team, a minor emergency caused by a broken down forage harvester, and a he-said / she-said account of a fractious online quiz.
In the words of actor Tim Bentick, who plays David Archer, the stories were “told from the minds of the village characters, in a way that has never been heard in all its sixty-nine years”.
“As actors, we’re always after the sub-text – what we say is not necessarily what we mean,” he added. “Now, what we think is not necessarily what we say!”
What was the reaction?
When the episodes debuted in May, some listeners enjoyed the insights into the characters’ inner lives but others took umbrage at Ambridge.
Sean O’Connor, who edited the programme from 2013 to 2016, said the show had become “tedious” and “navel-gazing”.
“When it excites you or entertains you, it feels like you’ve got a great friend. But when it’s like it is now, it feels like it’s somebody you don’t know,” he told The Times.
“I’ve switched off – I can’t listen to it.”
Author India Knight voiced her dissatisfaction on Twitter, writing: “The Archers is SO BAD. It’s making me furious.” (The tweet has since been deleted.)
“Oh I’m so glad it’s not just me,” responded one of her followers. “Monologues were fine for a week but are now most uninspiring.”
Others were more positive about the changes.
“Not seeing a lot of love for The Archers right now so wanted to say how much I’m enjoying the monologues,” wrote another Twitter user.
“Nice to hear the characters expressing their human insecurities. Some have been really touching.”
When will the show get back to normal?
Studio sessions resumed this week, but the programme is generally recorded six weeks in advance, so listeners might not hear the changes on air until early October.
Initially, the sessions will be limited to three actors in order to comply with social distancing rules – meaning big crowd scenes will be out of the question.
Other safety measures include temperature checks upon arrival and “zones” marked around the microphones so actors can remain apart, Radio 4 confirmed.
For the time being, there will also continue to be remote recording, alongside studio recording, so upcoming episodes will feature a mixture of scenes recorded at The Mailbox in Birmingham, and by actors at their homes.
“Dealing with the impact of coronavirus has been an enormous challenge,” said the programme’s editor, Jeremy Howe, “but listeners have now started to hear certain storylines resume as well as dialogue.
“As we start recording in the studio again, our aim is to get back to The Archers as it was before the pandemic, but it will be step by gradual step.”