Dum di dum di dum di dum.
Dum di dum di dum dum.
For the tone deaf among you those are the opening bars to Barwick Green by Arthur Wood, a piece of music better known to UK radio listeners as the theme tune to Radio 4’s long-running soap opera The Archers. It’s a madly jaunty bit of music, albeit with some dark, thunderous stretches. It was originally composed as a maypole dance and is instantly catchy, so much so in fact that Billy Connolly once suggested it would make a brilliant British national anthem. I think he’s right on that one. It’s certainly easier to stand up and salute to than the dirge we have at the moment.
Most national anthems tend to be a bit on the dull side, and sorry, I know this is just my tin ear at work here, but I am also including the unofficial Scottish anthem Flower Of Scotland in this calamitously sweeping generalisation. Sincere apologies for the offence that I may have cause there. I know it makes genuine Caledonian hearts soar, but musically I find it a bit of a trudge, and lyrically, you know, Edward II was a long time ago. Can’t we just forgive and forget? Move on with our lives?
I’m quite a fan of the South African anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika which takes the unconventional route of having exactly the same tune as I’m A Little Teapot Short And Stout.
In the Billy Connolly mode Bill Bailey (I think) suggested The Pink Panther Theme as a national anthem just so that our athletes would look cool at any Olympics opening ceremony. There’s merit in that one too I think.
I think my fondness for (i.e. fanatical obsession with) The Archers started when I was a kid. My Mum used to listen to it regularly. Still does in fact. I continued listening through my university years, enabled by a girlfriend who was also into it, and I’ve never really stopped. I download the podcasts even when I’ve already heard the episode in question and I think my level of devotion is utterly out of proportion. It certainly isn’t reflected in tolerance of any other soap opera.
The plodding traditionalist part of me likes a three act structure in a narrative arc: set-up, conflict, resolution. Or as we used to say in the olden days of yore (when yore was considered a pretty with-it word) I like a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m not averse to a bit of tinkering. I positively welcome an off-balance, or indeed non-narrative, approach when it’s intended or part of a coherent vision.
What I can’t stand is the endless middle, middle, middle, sausage factory production line school of writing that seems to be the way soap operas are created. It’s a bit like rolling news. There is a given amount of time per day to be filled, so the quality is bound to suffer a bit. You wouldn’t expect great things from Monet or Degas if they were given thirty feet of canvas a day and told to fill it because another thirty feet was on the way for tomorrow.
All these reservations disintegrate in the beam of pure joy that emanates from The Archers six days a week however, and if you have any insight at all in to why that might be I’m sure my psychiatrist would be delighted to hear from you.
Initiated in 1951 partially as a way of disseminating news about agricultural policy at a time when city-dwellers were largely ignorant of the countryside and food rationing was still in place, The Archers married a laudable sense of social responsibility to an almost mind-bogglingly mundane narrative.
It still does both of these things. There is an agricultural story editor to ensure that topical storylines about migrant workers or BSE or foot and mouth or badgers bearing TB are framed sensibly. There is also the anti-dramatic spectacle of Parish Council developments and family life punctuated with the occasional, what one can only call, incident.
Maybe that is what appeals to me. The gradualness and understatedness of it all. It makes a cricket match look like a game of speed Ker-Plunk played with money at stake.
As an illustration of this Jack Woolley, one-time proud Brummie business magnate in The Archers, started to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease at the same time as the character Mike Baldwin did on the TV soap Coronation Street. That was some years ago, and whilst Mike’s Alzheimer’s was a deafening two week storyline culminating in a ludicrous King Lear death scene Jack Woolley is still in slow decline. Mike Baldwin’s illness was a shrill ratings-grabber. Jack Woolley’s downwards trajectory has the bittersweet melancholy of the real thing. Parts of it have been harrowing to listen to.
Soap characters tend to be depicted with fairly crude brush strokes, daubs often, and the same is true of The Archers although the characters’ and actors’ longevity ensure an eventual ornate complexity. As the roles have minute amounts accreted to them over the years they become almost organically real.
Norman Painting who played the patriarchal character Phil Archer died at the end of 2009. By the time of his demise he had been playing the same character from 1951 as a young man in his twenties up until 2009 by which time he was part of the octogenarian gerontocracy. I have to applaud that.
Other deeper-than-you-think characters are Eddie and Clarrie Grundy whom I remember in the seventies as being yokelish comic relief, but who are now a handy metaphor for Britain’s economic precariousness. Splendidly their yobbish sons William (Wiwyurm) and Edward have grown up to become a dramaturgical dyad in the Cain and Abel tradition.
In a recent episode Eddie was being prodded by Clarrie into borrowing money from the financially well-off, but dangerously buttoned-up son William. Absolutely no way, said Eddie. I will never, ever borrow money off a son of mine… I wonder what will happen next.
I mention this because I have done the same thing myself. Not so long ago I claimed in a blog that I would never ever ever read any of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, Well that has turned out to be a lie. Anxious for once to run with the crowd and embrace the critical orthodoxy I have bought the first book in the series.
The radiantly beautiful Waterstone’s bookseller (I know, they all are, it seems unfair to put them in order, but this one’s pretty far up the loveliness spectrum) quizzed me like a foxy Jeremy Paxman as I attempted my purchase.
“Is this for you?”
“Um, yes. A little bit.”
“I don’t think there’s any ess ee ecks in it.”
Difficult to know how to respond to that.
It turns out that, barring a spontaneous major calendrical upheaval, Sunday was the last day of January. I still had a bunch of work to do so I have stayed up all night doing it. Man, to paraphrase Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, I am getting too old for this poop.
Work’s done. I have had whatever meal it is you have at five o’clock in the morning and I have watched The Reader (2008).
It’s as heavy handed and emotionally manipulative at a personal level as the Bernard Schlink novel it comes from. Ralph Fiennes is, as so often, inappropriately cold-blooded and reptilian. Have you ever seen him eat? I bet he’s got a big long tongue and dines exclusively on insects. Sometimes his characteristic blankness serves him well in films (he is absolutely right as Bendrix in Neil Jordan’s movie version of The End Of The Affair for instance, or Amon Goth in Schindler’s List), but too often his remoteness puts me off. It did here.
Kate Winslet is superb, a gifted natural actress, never less than watchable. Her work in The Reader is notably good. The Oscar people certainly thought so.
What feels wrong is this: I think the original book’s single strength was to question whether or not we could continue genuinely to understand the holocaust through books, films and so on as the eye witnesses die out. The film feels paltry and inadvertently indicates that maybe we can’t.
I might feel differently about it when I’ve had a sleep.