Learning from the most enduring show in the world
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, 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. 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 sets 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 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.
On 1st January 1951, at 11.45am, the nation first heard the words “The Archers. An everyday story of countryfolk”. The programme has run every weekday without break since then. At its peak, in the mid-Fifties, The Archers was being listened to each weekday evening by over 20 million people, roughly half the population 4.4 million are still tuning in every week 1 million are now downloading the podcast everyday
The context of the Archers Farmers didn’t trust the government and didn’t want to be preached to or taught how to do their job At first broadcaster showed very little interest A creative hook was needed to get people to pay attention and change behaviours Initially targeted at a niche (farmers), it became a mainstream success To sugar the pill of the Ministry of Agriculture advice on good farming practice and "the importance of the February Price Review".
Why was the Archers so successful Simple An everyday story of country folk Unexpected What kept the fast-growing army of listeners silent in their seats were storylines stuffed with murder, arson, sabotage, kidnapping, robbery, a plane crash, and sex on the front-room sofa Credible The writers of the show were constantly going to farm shows and talking to farmers for new material, nothing was totally made up Concrete The plot was always modified at the last minute to incorporate relevant events and news to help the farming community deal with these problems (bird flu…) Emotional Very detailed and different characters had been developed to satisfy different audiences, allowing the audience to relate to the actors I’ve applied the ‘SUCCES’ criteria of Made to Stick