Charlotte Higgins on The Archers: a grim month saved by Joy’s knickers

So it has come to this. Social services. Called in after Alice, the alcoholic new mother, lobbed a brick through the community shop window after her mother-in-law, Susan Carter, declined to sell her a bottle of vodka. Had it not been for Joy’s knickers – abandoned in the grounds of Lower Loxley after she gamely offered to model for a life-drawing class – May in Ambridge would have been pretty grim. Whenever I hear the phrase “social services”, what comes to mind is the character simply called Social Services in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. Played by a hatchet-faced Tilda Swinton, she is the personification of grim bureaucracy, her words of doom (“juvenile refuge … electric shock therapy”) delivered in the crispest New England. Perhaps Swinton could swoop in to Ambridge and do a cameo, just as she did in that much-missed masterpiece, BBC Three’s rural mockumentary, This Country.

Anyway, it all kicked off, as it was fated to do, at the christening of baby Martha. Alice was pissed, a jangle of miniatures discovered in her handbag by husband Chris. Emma, Alice’s sister-in-law, who had been saving up years of bitterness precisely for such an occasion, gave her a piece of her mind. The truth of Alice’s addiction dawned painfully on her mother, Jennifer, and the wider Aldridge family (or, that “stuck up bunch of emotionally vacant losers”, as Emma described them). Well, on some of them. Her father, arch-capitalist Brian, is currently hiding out in a very comfortable place called denial. How does poor Jennifer cope? Obtuse at times, ridiculous certainly, she is a bit of a snob, who struggles with being related by marriage to the below-the-salt Carters (and by extension to the Horrobins, the closest Ambridge gets to the characters of This Country). But she is a person of great inner strength, who deals with her husband and insufferable children, including solipsistic Kate and angry Adam, with admirable kindness. Not to mention uncomplainingly bringing up Ruairi, fruit of Brian’s philandering. One feels that Jennifer will, in time, be the saving of Alice.

Discussion points: is it acceptable to offer christening biscuits decorated with a portrait in icing of the infant in question, effectively inviting your guests to bite a baby’s face? What is the answer to the crossword clue that Jim was considering while minding the shop, shortly before Alice chucked her brick? (“Several carrots respond to cry for help.”) Is Lilian a functioning alcoholic? And finally, why did coleslaw become just slaw?, which I’m asking for Brian. Feel free to answer, wearily, with Fallon: “I don’t know, Brian. It just did.”

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