The Archers is a long-running radio programme that has been broadcast since 1st January 1951 and which has enthralled listeners ever since. Perhaps “enthralled” is too strong a term to use, but many people find it compulsive listening.
In 1948, the UK was emerging from World War 2, food rationing was not only still in effect but had also recently been extended while the country coped with supplying the Berlin Airlift. It was a time when farmers had lost confidence in the Ministry of Agriculture, due mainly to some idiotic ideas that civil servants had foisted on them during the war years. In Birmingham, a BBC Midlands programme assistant called Godfrey Baseley, who was more or less in charge of programmes for farming and the countryside. These included Down On The Farm, where reporters visited a farm each week in an attempt to explain agriculture to the wider general audience.
However, an important part of his job was to provide information for small farmers in order to help them to modernise and become more efficient. It wasn’t going well, mainly because of their mistrust of things official built up during the war years. So, Godfrey Baseley decided to organise lecture tours around the village halls but these were met either by non-attendance or by a lack of interest.
Eventually, he organised a meeting on 3rd June 1948 with prominent farmers and officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, in order to discuss the problem, and chaired by the Controller of BBC Midland Region. The meeting was told that food rationing could only be eased if farmers could be persuaded to change their methods. In this year, for every combine harvester in operation, there would be twenty-four horses engaged in bringing in the harvest. It was part of the BBC’s job to inform and yet the message wasn’t getting through. Did anyone have any ideas as to how to make the smaller farmers actually listen to the broadcast information? Mr Henry Burtt of Dowsby, Lincolnshire, stood up and said “What we need is a farming Dick Barton”.
Dick Barton - Special Agent was a very popular radio series that followed the adventures of the hero and his sidekick from one nail biting situation to another. You should appreciate that in 1948 radio was the primary broadcast medium, there was hardly any television coverage in the UK and hardly anything worth watching even if you did have a television set. As it was, the meeting had a laugh at the suggestion and moved on.
Godfrey Baseley continued to make his farming and gardening programmes but found that the Dick Barton idea had stuck in his mind and so, on his next visit to the Lincolnshire area decided to visit Farmer Burtt. Farmer Burtt pointed to a one hundred acres of blackcurrants and told him that if he was to discover big bud appearing in this field, he would be as horrified as Dick Barton on finding himself in a pit full of crocodiles. It set Baseley thinking and he discussed the idea with his boss who suggested he should put something down on paper. There is no pub in Dowsby the nearest one is in the village of Rippingale and it's called the Bull.
Baseley was not a writer but tried nevertheless to come up with a script. It was done but he threw it away, only to have the script rescued from the waste bin by his secretary. He read it again, and threw it away again. He contacted one of the Dick Barton scriptwriters, Ted Mason with whom he had worked before, and arranged a meeting with him and another writer from the series, Geoffrey Webb. Baseley had drawn up a set of detailed biographies of the principle characters that he had in mind “to reflect every aspect of farming in a Midland village”. The professionals took over from there; and with some enthusiasm, because the next morning Baseley found a script marked The Archers; Episode One waiting on his desk.
He knew that his boss would want five scripts, so he had to ask the writers to come up with four more, and for free. They did so and he presented them to his boss, Denis Morris, who read them but who took the best part of a year to respond because, as it transpired, he had been trying to get the BBC in London to support the idea, without success. In the end, Morris financed the five pilot episodes from his own regional budget. It was now 1950 and, on Friday 12th May, the actors met at 6.30pm to read through the scripts. On the Saturday, they rehearsed and on the Sunday, they recorded them.
The recordings were sent to BBC programme chiefs in London but the result was that, for a range of petty political motives, they were more concerned with who had provided the money for the recordings. They decided to wait and see what the audience reaction would be when the programmes were broadcast in the Midland Region, starting on Whit Monday. Eventually, on 16th September 1950, an unenthusiastic memo arrived on Denis Morris’ desk approving a three-month run on the Light Programme.
After a lot of bargaining, Godfrey Baseley ended up with a budget of forty-seven pounds per week and on Thursday 28th December 1950, a programme called Announcing The Archers was broadcast with Baseley visiting Brookfield Farm and talking with the Archer family, discovering Phil Archer and Grace Fairbrother canoodling behind a haystack and giving an introduction to the village and its residents.
On 1st January 1951, at 11.45am, the nation first heard the words “The Archers. An everyday story of countryfolk”. A more detailed and interesting description of the above can be found in the book The Archers, The True Story by William Smethurst, which was re-published in 2000 with more up-to-date information.
The programme has run every weekday without break since then.
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