For well over 50 years, the BBC Radio 4 series The Archers – the longest-running soap opera in radio history – has been bringing us the latest news from the farming community of Ambridge. It has its own vast fan community and, like Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has also generated a good deal of academic commentary. The latest conference proceedings can be found in Custard, Culverts and Cake: Academics on life in The Archers, edited by Cara Courage and Nicola Headlam (due from Emerald Publishing next week).
A mere glance at the contents page soon drenches readers in a reassuringly familiar world of birdwatching, cake consumption, flood resilience, intersecting kinship networks and rural theology. There have been many debates about what academics can contribute to the study of popular culture and what kind of perspective they should bring about it. This book is overtly written from the point of view of committed fans, who sometimes seem to miss the wood for the trees or to forget that they are dealing with fictional characters.
A chapter called “Helen’s Diet behind Bars” uses the storyline of Helen Titchener’s imprisonment to look at “the vague guidance on diet for pregnant and breastfeeding women within the prison service” – and how this, combined with severe underfunding, “has the potential to endanger the health of mothers and babies”. This is an important policy issue, with significant implications for the lives of real women. So it feels very odd for the author to start expressing concerns about what the fictional Helen ate in prison and to point out that, while still living in Ambridge, she would have been “wise not to eat lead-shot game from the shoot, her own Borsetshire Blue cheese or undercooked eggs from Upper Class Eggs”.
Helen Titchener was accused of attempted murder, but another chapter in Custard, Culverts and Cake – “My Parsnips Are Bigger Than Your Parsnips” – focuses on the lesser moral failings of those involved in the annual Ambridge Flower and Produce Show. We read about the notorious “chutneygate”, when “Jill Archer’s chutney was confused with Carol Tregorran’s and she was wrongly awarded Best in Show”. Even this was matched by the times when “Jim Lloyd’s onions were disqualified following illicit use of twine” and when labels were swapped on the runner beans.
Intelligent people can obviously enjoy such dramas in a spirit of camp or whimsy (although one might also regard a fascination with the simpler world of Ambridge as a symptom of much that is wrong with Brexit Britain). The new book opts to use the minor scandals involving vegetables as a peg for some moral philosophy, analysing the nature of cheating and including interviews with participants in a real-life flower and produce show.
It is hard to know how seriously to take all this – and, in a further strange twist, the editors of Custard, Culverts and Cake have chosen to include “peer review” commentary at the end of each chapter in the voices of characters in The Archers. Books by academics come in many shapes and sizes, but it is certainly rare to read one featuring “tiger onesies”, “banana and Marmite muffins” and the health benefits of lemon zest.