We need accurate portrayals – not Chardonnay's reality radio
It's that heartsink moment. The news is out that the new editor of The Archers is to be Sean O'Connor. The name may mean nothing but the antecedents tell us all we need to know. Footballers' Wives, Family Affairs and Hollyoaks are all on his CV. What will this mean for the everyday tale of country folk?
After the lift that men of a certain age everywhere got from the announcement that Peter Capaldi – the man who can speak profanities more hilariously than anyone else on TV, in The Thick of It – is to be the new Dr Who, this is the kickback. It is almost as if the BBC is telling us, "We'll steer clear of a pretty-boy actor to play the Time Lord but in return radio's longest-running soap will henceforth be edited by a man with his finger on the pulse of modern 'broken' Britain."
In truth there is probably little Mr O'Connor can do to further damage The Archers. It has already fallen victim to the right-on brigade with its gay kisses, its sex in the shower – remember Joelene and Sid? – and its not so subtle attempts to deal with "issues". But it would have been nice if the Beeb could have signalled a genuine attempt to put some proper mud on the Archers' boots again, rekindling some of the programme's original aims of informing a largely urban-based listenership about the countryside and rural ways.
What about putting Robin Page, forthright rural newspaper columnist and former presenter of One Man And His Dog in charge? Or Clarissa Dickson-Wright, a woman who knows how to shoot, paunch, skin and joint a rabbit and serve it up for dinner faster than you can say Joe Grundy's cider? Or our own Ron Bendell, a broadcaster of repute and steeped in the ways of the countryside?
NEW FROM SYMPLY - a wet dog food in a tray freshly steamed with real meat and veg you can see minimum of 68% meat content up to 72% in the adult trays.
Terms: Come and try tray at introductory price of £1
Contact: 01271 440626
Valid until: Friday, January 31 2014
Or what about making the Archers once again a part of the Government's rural marketing machine? It was rumoured to have been conceived as a way of making farmers in struggling post-war Britain aware of new developments to boost food production. Put Owen Paterson, the soundest Secretary of State that Defra has seen for years, or Richard Benyon, his country-estate-owning pro-shooting minister at the helm. We could save a fortune on "PR professionals".
Instead we suspect Mr O'Connor will, even now, be thinking up ever more challenging story lines. Will a vegetarian landlord be taking over at The Bull and banishing Freda's casseroles from the menu? Might a freedom-for-horses pressure group be coming down from Birmingham to release all the mounts from Shula's riding stables? Who knows?
The Archers is a bit like that other alleged bastion of rural life put out by the BBC, Countryfile. Many tune in to both but generally only to complain that each in its own way misrepresents what really goes on in the countryside.
On Countryfile it is all that silly stuff about alpaca racing and white water rafting down the river Wye that gets our goat – with only Adam's Farm and the six-day weather forecast to alleviate the misery. With the Archers it is only Brian Aldridge's ever more fiendish ways to extract money from the landscape and William Grundy's gamekeeping forays that keep us listening.
O'Connor is not an Archers virgin. He worked on the Radio 4 drama in the late 1990s and returns to the show to take over as editor next month, replacing Vanessa Whitburn who stepped down from the role earlier this year after 22 years – not all of them glorious by any means – in charge. When the BBC advertised for a new editor and specified it was seeking someone who was brave, resilient and able to say "sorry when you got it wrong", hopes were briefly raised. When they heard Mr O'Connor had left the radio soap to work on EastEnders, they were dashed again.
But let's hope the new editor remembers the strength of feeling among Archers fans. He said this week: "I'm honoured to take the reins of our national epic drama and to build on the extraordinary achievements of Vanessa Whitburn who dedicated much of her career to this unique cultural institution."
The normally carefully balanced Press Association reported on Monday: "Archers fans can be particularly sensitive about efforts to sensationalise storylines." They're not wrong. O'Connor's predecessor, Ms Whitburn drew a good deal of criticism for attempting to "sex up" the show. Archers lovers called for a return to more farming-based stories when her departure was announced.
Apparently a "programme source" has already welcomed Mr O'Connor's appointment and said he was noted for his "sensitivity of understanding" for both the characters and storylines.
With the greatest respect, we'll be the judge of that.