The Archers: 0, Staged: 1

4FE3F3A2-9842-4F93-9E42-2D409E050E3DOften, it’s the smallest things that introduce a moment of disquiet. As lockdown started, news came that The Archers would be reducing the number of broadcasts per week to eke out its recordings. In fact, I discovered that it was quite nice to escape the real world and be reminded each time that Ambridge was coronavirus free. Then we had the archive episodes. Having heard what came after, I’m all for saying can we go back to these please? After all, there must be 300,000; 34; 974,000 hours of material, to borrow from our beloved Home Secretary. Personally, I would very much like to hear Helen’s trial again, with the special jury deliberation episode.

I’d been all eager to hear the first instalment and awaited 7.00pm in my kitchen in childlike-excitement. Like all irritants, once something’s gone you miss it at some level, and the Twitter tweetalong has been a muted, sombre place the last few months. Other writers (Miranda Sawyer, for example), have already explained beautifully how disappointing this first episode was. David, patriarchal overlord, wanging on tediously about lasagne to Bess (that’s a cow, not a long-suffering family member), intercut with his equally tedious, grumbling spawn.

So disheartened it made me, that my listening has waned and I’ve only heard brief snippets over the last three weeks. There were some amusing bits – Susan, sloshed on duty-free rum on her radio show and Tracy, attempting to mobilise the cricket team online. These worked better, partly because these women are glorious creations, but also because they were suited to the form. A radio show often has just one person talking into empty space; but inner monologues, being a peculiarly theatrical device, have to reveal something new about a character that you couldn’t have predicted and there’s been precious little of that: same old, same old, it seemed to be.

In this last week we had Tom’s nit-picking, over-eager, Natasha-pleasing; Tony and Johnny with their matching shaved heads; Helen, twittering about Lee and analysing her radio appearance ad infinitum and everything else besides – the woman navel gazes so much I’m surprised she’s got any innards left.

The only worthwhile moment came, surprisingly, in the form of Natasha (or ‘Gnasher’ as us twitter-wags term her).  She fell to musing about her dad’s manic depressive behaviour and reminiscing about her 8th birthday when he attempted to wow with magic tricks. ‘All I’ve ever wanted to do was make you proud,’ she said, giving us an insight into her pushy demeanour. Here was the good stuff. There must be many others in the characters’ lives who never appear, why don’t we hear thoughts about them?

I do appreciate the difficulties of recording in lockdown; the limited availability of cast members, the lack of technical equipment, but what is the point of a phone conversation where you can’t hear the other character?! Surely, two actors can record their halves and it be edited together after, for if the sound levels are mismatched, isn’t that normally how phone calls are?

Anyway, blessed relief came in the form of another 15 minute offering on TV, Staged. I’m a sucker for meta-type entertainment anyway, where actors play versions of themselves and you’re not quite sure how much is fabricated, so I was pretty much sold on this already and it blissfully didn’t disappoint.

David Tennant and Michael Sheen, scruffy and bearded, ranged about their homes, on Zoom calls, alternately animated and bored. Paranoia had crept in for Sheen, visualising a Hitchcockian takeover from the birds outside, meanwhile Tennant was starting to imagine words spelt backwards in his head (again).

They were ostensibly being goaded into rehearsing ‘Six Characters In Search of an Author’ online by their hapless director, co-creator Simon Evans, so that they would be ready to spring into action should a theatre re-open, but this was an inconsequential backdrop to their bitching. Mostly about who should be billed first (picture a less spiky version of The Trip) and showing each other their artworks created in lockdown. Sheen had, no doubt, introduced the topic in order to mock humbly display his fine oil painting of a nearby beach, after Tennant had shown his flimsy sketch of a pineapple.
‘Mine’s shit!’
‘It just needs some shading,’ smirked Sheen.

The swearing gets better than that, by the way (another thing that endeared me to it). The Archers doesn’t have that luxury unfortunately.

Their wives, also actors, were present from time to time. ‘What are you doing?’ asks Tennant, as he comes across Georgia absorbed in her iPad while forking cake into gob, their children a noise in the distance.

‘Yoga,’ she says, barely looking up from the screen.
This captured beautifully the mood of these times, where one can be captivated by a brilliant idea only to be railroaded by inertia a moment later. Low level anxiety is very draining.

My only moment of disquiet is that it is slightly wearing to see how easily successful, famous men manage to attract beautiful women significantly younger than them, about which there is nary a peep (but completely a different story when the other way round), but hey, this is their real life, so well done lads.

Both Georgia and Sheen’s wife Anna, have a quietly indulgent air with their men-children and are portrayed as more competent and productive, as indeed is Simon’s sister, who owns what looks like a countryside show home that he is squatting in.

It was therefore nice to see a cameo from an irascible Nina Sosanya, berating the hapless Simon for giving an agent her phone number, barking at an unseen assistant to ‘get me a new phone’, proving that women can also behave badly.

All in all, this was a delight, showing how lockdown entertainment should be done and I look forward to seeing how many more variants on their names they can come up with for the billing.

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