Charlotte Higgins on The Archers: deliver me from model railways and superheroes

There have been times these past weeks when The Archers has been almost too traumatic to hear. I refer, of course, to the upsetting scenes in which Tony Archer, Ambridge’s dreariest man, practised male bonding over his model railway with Helen’s boyfriend, Lee, causing the latter to confess to a weakness for superhero figurines.

Why were these distressing dialogues included in a family soap? Did the BBC, mindful of its status as the provider of a universal broadcasting service, panic that the model-railway and superhero-figurine-owning minority was underserved? Surely not. The only possible explanation is metatheatrical: the scriptwriters were drawing our attention to their own roles as “Tony” and “Lee”, cruel deities who take delight in manipulating their perfect miniature world, one moment lovingly repositioning its signal boxes and teeny-tiny trees, the next, smiting its heroes and derailing its trains. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.

The said gods of Ambridge have not been looking kindly upon poor alcoholic Alice, who packed her bags and walked out on her husband and baby. She should stay away: she deserves liberation from Ambridge’s malign miasma. Having dried out, she could, using her actual qualifications, design some aeroplanes. Or spaceships! I’d like to see her reappear in 10 years’ time, all tough and wiry like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, expertly docking the Millennium Falcon on Lakey Hill just as, in a field nearby, the villagers excavate Ben’s ghastly time-capsule while a demented Justin incoherently warbles “Daffodil! Daffodil!” from the sidelines. Seriously. I don’t know how much longer I can take Alice’s descent into hell. The Rob-Helen coercive control story was dark, but at least there was a Wilkie Collinsesque melodrama about it: you could imagine Rob twirling his moustache like Count Fosco. Alice’s alcoholism is just grim, even when interwoven with Tracy and Jazzer leaping skittishly through the meadows like spring lambs. Tracy is obviously in love; what else could have compelled her to tell her beau, “I’ve always been interested in aquaponics.” No, but have you really, Tracy?

Duty compels me to reveal the contents of A Month in Ambridge’s postbag. “Dear Madam,” begins the letter, “as one of the very few Guardian readers in Borsetshire, it pains me to point out that you referred to my car as a Nissan Note in last month’s column. I do not know when I, or rather my rare and valuable Riley, has been more insulted. This would surely never have happened on Nancy Banks-Smith’s watch. As Cicero memorably exclaimed, ‘O tempora, O mores’. Yours, Jim Lloyd, professor emeritus, Stirling University, Greenacres, Ambridge.”

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