The Archers scriptwriters have recently become a tad obsessed with characters’ backstories. I imagine a bright young editorial assistant idly running her hand across those famous filing cabinets, full to bursting with index cards going back sixty-odd years, and saying, ‘You know? We should do something with these?’ her voice going up at the end of the sentence to indicate her youth and irritatingness. Leaping in to agree, because she’s young and quite pretty, the writers have been muttering about narrative depth and story arcs as if they were going out of fashion (they probably are), and throwing Midnight Walkers and John Archer’s unexpected progeny and Hazel Woolley at us, seemingly so we can mug up for Mastermind with History of the Archers as our specialist subject (don’t think this hasn’t occurred to me).
This history plundering seemed to reach a new low when out of the ether came Carol Tregorran, her index card plucked out at random, husband John crossed off the card with a hasty red biro, one new actor being all the backstory budget could afford. I groaned loudly. What was Carol, last seen in 1990, though apparently she has been back for various anniversaries and funerals, going to bring to the table? At worst, she was going to be another wooden old scrote into baking or bee-keeping or knitting, dragging Christine Barford back into play and causing me to scratch my fingers down the walls for light relief.
Well I’m glad to say this: I was wrong. Cut out and keep that, for I’m never wrong, and even if I am, I don’t admit it in a public place. Carol has single-handedly restored my loving warmth for the Archers, and now my only worry is that she will go back to Bristol too soon, leaving me bereft, a mere memory of what the Archers could be hanging like smoke leaking from an anaerobic digester.
Carol Tregorran is played by Eleanor Bron. I can scarcely believe that I have written that sentence. What Eleanor Bron, with her gorgeous voice and sexy smile is doing here, is a rotten indictment of the lack of roles for the older woman on film and telly, but no matter; their loss is oh, so much our gain. I can hardly express the joy of listening to someone who can really, properly act, effortlessly inhabiting the character and making her into a living, breathing actual person. The only problem is the sharp relief into which she throws almost all the rest of her colleagues. Her acting shows what we have to put up with for most of the rest of the time. Eleanor Bron makes Carol seem real, in a way that certain people playing, say, Roy and Ed and Emma and Christine and Alice and Helen (I could, of course, go on, for hours), just don’t.
But even better than the beautiful voice and the bewitching acting talent, is the character of Carol herself. In one of my favourite ever episodes (Monday 11th August) Carol went for a meal with Jill and Peggy. Both these characters are, thankfully, played by people who can act, and do inhabit their roles, though not in the masterclass league of Bron, who, it is becoming clear, I am in love with. There was talk of Christine coming along too, and I’m not saying I stuck pins in a voodoo doll but FOR WHATEVER REASON, she mercifully absented herself in an fit of common decency. So here are these three older women, all widows, all good friends, and what a terrific dynamic there is between them. Carol hasn’t seen the other two for a while, so she is alive and alert to the changes in them. Jill is still on top of her game, willing to go for a couple of glasses of red. Look how Carol made Jill giggle naughtily at the funeral. It’s been a while since we heard Jill do anything interesting; last time was when she got pissed off with Ruth’s unbearable mother for flirting with Phil. Jill’s probably forgiven Heather for that, but I haven’t, Heather, I haven’t. In Carol’s company, Jill’s voice becomes fruitier, her laugh more husky, she thrives.
But Carol is very conscious that Peggy is not doing well. ‘I wonder what the Peggy I knew would have said,’ she muses gently, as Peggy concedes that she has allowed herself to be rolled over by that ass-hat Hazel. Carol being around also allows darker shades to be admitted about marriage. Referring airily to her departed husband, still warm in his grave, Carol confesses that things were not always good between them, and that although they found a way of working things out – was there ever a more intriguing phrase – she feels that Jill and Peggy were luckier than her in the men they ended up with. The subtlety of the writing made me wonder if this could possibly be the same show in which Susan dogged the baked meats at the funeral by telling everyone how many minutes it was since Carol hadn’t spoken to Jennifer. It was so good that I didn’t mind them bringing up Grace Archer, because even that clunky backstory klaxon was handled well, and was in fact rather poignant.
The confiding conversation of the three widows, and two of the old friends’ awareness that the third is failing; the unashamedly slow pace, not slow because nothing happened – on the contrary – but slow because the characters were allowed to unfold; the bittersweet way they decide, in the end, to order wine first because, after all, life is short… this is what I want in my Archers.
I am dreading that Carol goes, and takes this lovely new Archers with her. Please stay, Carol. What’s Bristol got that Ambridge hasn’t? Apart from being real? Come and buy a cottage with the proceeds of John’s estate, let out the front room to Fallon so she can do her boring upcycling café, take Peggy and Jill out to the pub every Friday night, and keep me loving the Archers.
Posted by Qwerty, whose novel, When We Were Sisters, will be published on 28th August.