Americans and non-British people will probably have no idea what the fuck I'm talking about today.
THE ARCHERS is a BBC Radio 4's daily soap opera that's been running since 1951, which might make it the longest-running soap opera in the world. it's basically about a farming family and the people they know in a fictional part of England and part of the BBC's brief to educate and inform, so the storylines often include discussions of latest laws, farming and various social issues like single motherhood, adultery or the intricacies of organic farming and the latest EU farming regulations. Exciting stuff, yeah.
THE ARCHERS has millions of listeners and you could say it's a good representative of Middle England as much as The Daily Mail does. It gets talked about in the newspapers and sometimes even in Parliament. You get Scottish listeners complaining that the one Scottish character is too much of a stereotypical drugging, boozing, woman-chasing slacker. I find that funny because, frankly, EVERY character in THE ARCHERS, hell in any soap opera, is a stereotype. If I was stuck in Ambridge, I'd be taking as many drugs and boozing and shagging as much as possible to take my mind off it.
So in the run-up to New Year's, the BBC starting hyping up the show, saying there was going to be a major event that would rock the whole town to the core. Why they needed to hype up a radio soap opera that already had a captive audience was beyond me, but it listeners started speculating that someone or several of them was going to die on the show.
Come the New Year's episode, it happened.
Nigel – for it had to be someone named Nigel, went up on the roof in arctic winds to take down a Christmas banner when his wife had told him not to. This being a soap opera, the predictable happened, of course.
Nigel's death scream:
That's not the scream of a man falling off a roof. It's the scream of a man being stuffed into a woodchipper.
And there was no THUD or SPLAT. Was the house standing over a thousand-foot chasm? It's like he fell into a wormhole and might have ended up on the other side of a universe… a savage universe where he will have to fight fearsome creatures and bloodthirsty enemies to survive, forge an unstoppable army, take over the savage kingdom and lead them back to Earth.
Or not. Probably not. So many possible plotlines THE ARCHERS chooses not to pursue.
But anyway, the writers basically got rid of the character by having him be extremely stupid. Even Graham Seed, the actor who played him was heartbroken to be told that he was for the chop and in a manner where he would do something unbelievably stupid in order to be killed off. These characters are in a farming community after all, which means they would be very cognizant of Health and Safety, so there wasn't even any effort to make it seem believable. Since he didn't have any proper final line, Seed talked the director into letting him do the most improbable, bloodcurdling scream imaginable. I wonder if it wasn't so much a death scream as a final protest, a personal cry from the heart. Nigel didn't go quietly, no he didn't.
I tend to have Radio 4 on when I'm typing, and the entire cast of THE ARCHERS irritates the hell out of me. In my opinion, not enough of them fell off the roof on New Year's Eve. The next day's episode was completely plotless, just everyone moaning and tut-tutting over Nigel's fatal fall. And the more they talked about how awful it was and how nice he was and too bad he'd karked it, I found myself laughing more and more uncontrollably because it was all so crassly predictable and manipulative. "He died because he was a friggin' idiot!" I kept muttering.
Now, if this was real life and it was someone who was really dead, it would be awful and sad, but this was a fictional character that had to be written to do something incredibly stupid in order for him to die so that everyone could spend an entire fucking week wringing their hands over it. But then this is the nature of soap opera after all, and soaps are really not much more than a fairly pure form of emotional pornography. They're there to wring cheap emotions as quickly and easily out of the audience. In order to do that, they usually take the dumbest and fastest route they find, which is to have characters do the dumbest things in order for the plot to happen. That's really of the nature of melodrama: all the characters make the biggest mistakes and pay the biggest price in order for an almighty mountain of shit to land on them as a consequence and the audience gets a certain catharsis out of it. One would hope that in some ways melodramas are instructive on some level or other: don't sleep with your sister or brother, no matter how badly you want to, don't kill someone who fucked over your family, don't hide your darkest secrets from your loved ones, or NOTHING GOOD WILL COME OF IT. Soaps are the modern versions of melodrama. To complain that they're stupid is probably missing the point: they're supposed to be stupid so that we don't have to be.What gets me about THE ARCHERS is how mild it is and thus the melodrama is so incredibly mundane. That's its brief. You're never going to have a madman with an axe rampaging through Lower Loxley. You're never going to have a meth-crazed biker gang descend on the town and kill everyone in it. I wish just once that would happen to wipe out the cast of a soap opera or TV series as a bridge-burning finale. No, Ambridge and Lower Loxley is representative of England, so everything is always moderate and mild, including the melodrama. In fact, the melodrama is so mundane – like a man falling off a roof because he disregarded commonsense and went up there when there were 20mph winds raging on a winter's night – that it's like the Diet Coke of Melodrama.
The thing is, THE ARCHERS is the mildest of soaps. They leave it to other British soaps to step up the melodrama stakes, like the deus ex machine (man, literally!) Lockerbie-style plane crash in the 80s that wiped out most of the cast of EMMERDALE so they could replace them all, or the fire at Sunhill Police Station that took out a big chunk of the cast in THE BILL years ago.
All that hilarity aside, the problem with melodrama is that it's utterly shit storytelling. It takes the most predictable choices and offers no surprises whatsoever. You always see the climax and payoff coming a mile off. The only way to transcend that is to go utterly batshit insane and over the top, which is what early melodrama like John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI did, and the Grande Guignol theatre in France – itself a precursor to slasher films and torture porn franchises like SAW and HOSTEL – took melodrama in the direction of outright gore and horror to achieve a kind of transcendental catharsis. My feeling is, better to go totally insane with your story than be boring.
The Bill Sunhill fire 2002:
British soaps stay well within the realm of plausibility so you only ever get characters making mistakes. You don't get the levels of sublime insanity in American soaps like having the secret clone of a character kidnap her and try to take over her life before aging and dying prematurely, or having James Franco show up playing a psychopathic actor-artist-performance artist named James Franco stalk one of the main characters, start cross-dressing and then end up in a bizarre public performance-cum-suicide ritual, which is probably the point where a US soap opera achieved demented genius. This is probably the best expression of the differences between not only UK and US soaps, but also of the British and American mentalities. In British melodrama, characters do really stupid things. In American melodrama, characters do really insane things. I would prefer writers, especially comics writers, go for the crazy rather than the expected. The only thing they gain is readers and attention.
This is why I would like to see Warren Ellis become the writer of THE ARCHERS movie and Michael Bay to direct it.
I still can't stop hitting "play" on that scream. It makes me smile.
On the bright side, I hear a lot of people have turned that scream into their new mobile phone ringtone.
Still can't stop pressing "play" at firstname.lastname@example.org
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