The peasants are revolting. When The Archers’ digital spin-off Ambridge Extra began this month, it was heralded as featuring new characters and plots existing independently of its parent radio-soap. “The idea is that you’ll be able to hear more stories from in and around Ambridge,” trumpeted scriptwriter Keri Davies. Were Archers fans happy? No, they were not. (The bloody peasants.)
This snipe from a Guardian comments board approximates the mood: “Another godawful ego-rubbing exercise for the Whitburn woman and her cronies – including the arrogant little sod Keri Davies. Both of whom have been responsible for dumping the programme’s history and creating the stodgy programme it is today.” Hardly Cider with Rosie is it?
“The Whitburn woman” is Vanessa Whitburn, Archers editor for the past 20 years, having joined the show as an assistant producer back in 1977, that glorious yesteryear of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. To say that she is steeped in the show, and vice versa, is like suggesting that Ambridge’s porkers are steeped in odour.
Before Whitburn became editor, The Archers featured generally gentle storylines of rural idyll, offering tips to farmers. One producer of that era, William Smethurst, referred to her as the “She-Wolf” and accused her of overseeing “badly written, feminist tripe”. Under her stewardship, storylines have featured drug dealing, civil partnerships, a lady vicar, and neo-Nazi thugs throwing acid at a Hindu lawyer. “You don’t get neo-Nazi thugs throwing acid at Hindu lawyers in the countryside,” contended Smethurst.
Another former colleague of Whitburn’s, Anthony Parkin, who worked on the show for 26 years, wrote a thinly veiled attack-novel after departing acrimoniously, angered by what he saw as unrealistic, PC storylines. Titled Humbridge: An Everyday Story of Scriptwriting Folk, it featured the tantrum-prone lesbian Amabel Pike as editor of a radio soap called Humbridge, doing battle with unassuming scriptwriter Roger. (Whitburn also happened to live with another woman, according to the Mail on Sunday, which could not be counted among her fans.)
That was in 2002. Three years later, celebrity Archers listener AN Wilson joined the furore, recalling that during Tony Blair’s campaign to ban fox hunting, the only Ambridge resident to attend a demo was the homosexual Welsh publican. Who went on a Gay Pride march.
“To be PC is really to be moral. It is having a correct moral stance,” Whitburn told the Guardian at the time. “PC is, in fact, my moral plank. I don’t think that wishy-washy liberal ideology works any more.”
Only this January, she – well, not Vanessa personally – lobbed much-loved Ambridge veteran Nigel Pargetter off a roof to his death. All for cheap publicity on the show’s 60th anniversary, suggested the cynical. Enraged that Whitburn broke the news of Nigel’s demise to the man who played him, Graham Seed, by phone rather than in person, listeners must have wished she would walk her precious moral plank. They also complained that she had let slip the fateful storyline on the Today programme, the morning before the episode aired. Then they complained that she was not listening to their complaints.
“The entire cast of The Archers [should] arm themselves with inflated pigs’ bladders, descend on Vanessa Whitburn’s office and proceed to act out of character until she resigns,” wrote one irate fan.
Hate her or love her – and the online petition “Vanessa Whitburn should stay” boasts six (count ’em) signatories – you cannot ignore her. She’s even in Debrett’s, celebrated harbour of the left wing and champagne-averse. Should you wish to address her, according to her entry, she prefers the title Ms.