In a little noticed paragraph in the Autumn Statement Chancellor George Osborne announced that the Government would be fully funding the Borchester to Hollerton Relief Road in the West Midlands as part of the National Infrastructure Plan. The move comes as no surprise to anti road campaigners, nor to Radio 4 listeners who have become used to shock announcements affecting the Ambridge area south of Birmingham between Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Indeed, while for sheer shock value it might not rank alongside the death by rolled over Fergie [the type of vintage agricultural tractor, not the Duchess of York] which befell John Archer in 1998, let alone the Darwin Award winning death which resulted from Nigel Pargetter’s decision to climb up onto the slippery roof of Lower Loxley Hall in the dark to retrieve bunting at New Year 2011, fans of BBC Radio 4’s long running soap opera, “The Archers” are currently reeling from the double whammy of the near death [and serious spinal injury] by Bull which recently befell dairyman and troubled Bridge Farm patriarch Tony Archer and the revelation that the hitherto saintly, Country File calender pin up, farming family David and Ruth Archer of Brookfield, are in fact predatory capitalists b******ds with the business ethics and social responsibility of Gordon Gekko.
Fans of a more socialist persuasion might also be reeling from the discovery that they even agree with former Home Secretary David Blunkett MP who wrote recently that under the “new management” of programme editor Sean O’Connor
“I fear for the central family of The Archers, David and Ruth Archer, who farm the historic land carefully nurtured by grandfather Dan and David’s parents, Phil and Jill. Are David, Ruth and Jill on the edge of being definitively written out?…The Archers – RIP.”
The argument is that The Archers is becoming less the bucolic and gently comedic, “everyday story of country folk” [with every so often an added violent death] and more like every other Soap Opera where the writers are apparently more interested in ticking the boxes around various “ishoos” and garnering higher ratings through increasingly lurid plot lines [it is rumored some Radio 4 listeners are still in therapy following the infamous sex in the shower scene between Jolene and the late Sid Perks in 2000]. However, this misses the point about “The Archers”. The programme was always meant to have a didactic edge.
When “The Archers” was launched as a pilot series of just five episodes by founder producer Godfrey Baseley in 1950 , one of Baseley’s aims was to help farmers in the West Midlands where the series is set and where it was first broadcast, to adjust to the new Post World War Two world of intensive, mechanised agriculture and direction from teh then Ministry of Agriculture in Whitehall. We can see this conscious airing of issues of real importance to the countryside and those who live and work in the countryside, in another contentious plot line which is currently playing out nightly at two minutes past seven, repeated at two pm the following day and in the Omnibus Edition on Sunday morning. A plot line which is, as Mr Blunkett writes, apparently putting the future of the family at the center of the series for over sixty years at risk.
David and Ruth Archer are currently looking to sell up the family farm Brookfield because, Route B, the preferred route of the Borchester to Hollerton relief road which Mr Osborne re-announced in the Autumn Statement, will cut Brookfield in two. This is causing great distress to the family who have built up the farm over generations and not least to Matriarch Jill Archer, David’s mother, who just says “No Noo!” and now looks to be sickening for something nasty over Christmas. Always a dangerous time of year for the inhabitants of Soap Land.
However, time is a great healer, and if you haven’t got time then a lot of money usually helps. In the latest emotive complication property developer
villan [sorry] growth promoting entrepreneur and local employer Justin Elliott of Damara Capital/Haskor has offered the Archer family an eye watering £7.5 million for the Brookfield if they will sell direct to him without taking the farm to auction where it might be bought by someone like Brian Aldridge who might, heaven forbid, actually want to farm the land rather than treat it as a rural investment opportunity to be asset stripped.
This leads thePipeLine to offer Mr O’Connor a simple and compelling story line to add further realism to the soap in one comprehensive package, plucked from today’s headlines [and, as a bonus, to achieve this without any need to resort to the character of the endlessly annoying Linda Snell and her attempts to thwart the road plan by invoking the colony of the rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly. A plan which never had a hope anyway. Anyone at the Borsetshire Wildlife Trust could have told her that given the precedent of the Lodge Hill development the butterflies would just be re-located across the county boundary into Worcestershire].
Here are thePipeLine’s suggestions our “the Archers” Plot Line
1. Have a leading battlefield archaeologist relocate a crucial part of the action of the 1642 English Civil War battle of Hassett Bridge and the location of the grave pits, to a key section of Route B.
2. Have the planning officers of South Borsetshire District Council fail to properly brief the Council planning committee about the protection on offer to Nationally Important Battlefield sites by the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] and also fail to implement properly other environmental legislation and statutory guidance as well as the Council’s own conservation policy as set out in its strategic plans.
3. Finally, in a sub plot, have the Leader of the Council push through the sale, against all advice, of an internationally important Egyptian statue from the Borchester Museum for a £16 million pound price tag and pass on half of the proceeds to Justin Elliott, the family of whom, we will discover, donated the statue to the museum in the first place in 1880 on condition it was never taken off display or disposed of.
Clearly our plot line dramatises genuine planning and heritage governance issues which can be seen in the world outside Ambridge everywhere from Old Oswestry Hill Fort and the battlefield and Museum of Northampton, to the Lodge Hill development and at Edgecote on the line of HS2. Such a plot line would also offer the opportunity to introduce some new exciting new characters and dramatically satisfying relationships and conflicts. There is even the opportunity to include another “Archers” staple, the celebrity cameo, this time by Prime Minister David Cameron and Nick Clegg. There is precedent for this. In 1994 the then Home Secretary Michael Howard was asked to intervene in the case of the “Ambridge One”, Susan Carter who was briefly jailed for helping her fugitive brother. We suggest the BBC could further blur the lines between the reality of Ambridge and the soap opera of Westminster by issuing separate press photographs of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg [wearing Hi Visibility jackets of course] where they each get to re-announce for the third time the whole Borcherster to Hollerton Relief Road plan accompanied in the background of the shot by the outgoing Chief Executive of Borchester Heritage who has managed to get some smart new interpretation boards about the Battle of Hassett Bridge funded as a planning condition and placed in a lay by and picnic area screened by trees.
We can follow the politicians cameo with a dramatic scene, with comedic sub text, set during the course of a wet pre-Christmas evening in the local pub in Ambridge, the Bull. In the establishing scene local farm workers like pigman Jazzer could compare their poor wages and conditions, and lack of dress sense, with those of the young digging crew and the hard bitten site supervisor from the Borsetshire Archaeological Trust who are undertaking the developer funded work along the route of the new road. [Actually forget that. A major road project contract like the Borcherster to Hollerton Relief Road would most likely go to one of the big units, probably in a consortium.] But no matter, a new group of outsiders dressed in DPM and Hi Viz offers rich opportunities for new relationships and arguments with the regular characters.
But that is just the set up enabling the writers to explore one of the most critical questions facing commercial planning archaeology today. That is, should archaeology take sides and if it should, which side is planning archaeology serving the commercial sector actually on?
Over at Lower Loxley we meet a deeply conflicted “Historic Environment Consultant” and long time member of, what is since 10 December, the “Chartered Institute for Archaeologists” [CIfA] who has been hired by Damara Capital to try to mitigate the effects on the project budget of the archaeological mitigation suggested by the Borsetshire County Archaeologist and English Heritage under the National Planing Policy Framework. Our Consultant is enjoying a candle lit supper with Elizabeth Pargetter [nee Archer]. This dalliance came about when the cider corks popped over a Level 3 Standing Buildings Survey of the historic Hall where Elizabeth is still on the rebound form that ill fated Loxfest fling with Roy Tucker…
Our Consultant is also wrestling with the conflicting emotions brought on by the question “Is being an archaeologist in the commercial sector about putting on a suit and adding more letters after your name just in order to facilitate other people’s get rich quick developments, many of which won’t be wanted by anyone except the people making profits from them, or trashing the countryside with transport schemes promoted for short term political reasons which are as much to do with marginal constituencies and pay backs for Party Funding as the needs of the nation? Is the best you can hope for the chance to mitigate the loss to our national culture and heritage? Or is it about pragmatically enabling research, conservation and preventing the worst excesses of uncontrolled and unregulated exploitation of the landscape for short term profit? Difficult because making a value judgment might sometimes require a statement to the effect that a particular development should not take place and who would employ you afterwards if you said that too often, let alone in front of a planning committee?”
…And given the emotional complications of any involvement with the Archer family, was it the right decision to come to Ambridge at all, even on £300 a day.
What is certain is that when it comes to planning issues, either in Ambridge, as in the parallel world of UK planning, our consultant is finding it increasingly uncomfortable sitting on the fence and trying to be all things to all people. He is rapidly coming to the conclusion that there lies the route to disappointing everyone, including many in the profession, where be began as a teenage volunteer and to which he has devoted his whole adult life. It is soul destroying and of course to make him feel even worse he knows that there is always that proportion of developers, architects, builders, planning officers and worst of all local and national politicians, who you just know are treating you with sheer contempt because they resent the mere presence of archaeological and heritage considerations in the planning system, seeing it as just another Tax and block on growth. As the candle light flickers our consultant stares into the depths of his glass and asks Elizabeth “Are we archaeologists so unsure of our own identity and worth that we want to be the uncritical friends of the like of Justin Elliott?” Then he remembers Elizabeth’s potential share of the £7.5 million. “Forget what I said. It was the Lower Loxley Madeleine-Seyval white talking.”
Meanwhile back in the Bull the digging crew are grouped around a table with congealing plates of lasagne and chips. One of our Archer’s Archae’s, a young and idealistic finds specialist with a good Two One from Leicester and a published dissertation on Late Saxon Shelly Ware, suggests that maybe archaeologists should be more confident. “I think we’ve got more power than we think we have- why else would George Osborne change the charter of English Heritage, so that it must specifically promote sustainable development?” she argues
“They are scared of what we can accomplish as conservationists because we would have most of the public on our side.” she adds “and they vote.”
“That’s all very fine and noble.” one of the older hands councils over another pint of Shires, “but if the commercial side of the profession didn’t exist none of us would have a job at all. When did a University last carry out an excavation on this scale and employ this many diggers?”
“Besides, even a Zero Hours Contract like this one is better than Job Seekers Allowance and without us the archaeology would just be destroyed without recording anyway, or dug by “volunteers” which amounts to the same thing.”
Then he adds “Keep your voice down if you want work on the digging circuit again. Remember the NDA we all had to sign. The Site Director is in the other bar talking to that bean counting Project Manager from Damara/Haskor and the Chair of the South Borsetshire Council Planning Committee. They are laughing a lot as if they reckon they have got away with something very clever.”
“Yes but”, says our young Anglo Saxonist, “we are Chartered now so we look just like all the developers, accountants, architects and lawyers who operate the building market. If we don’t make it clear our role is as an independent voice speaking up for knowledge and conservation, the public will see us as accomplices in the destruction of large swathes of irreplaceable countryside and green belt simply because rural developments and new builds are cheaper for developers and offer a higher commercial return.”
“Where,” she asks “are our archaeological organisations when Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England [CPRE], the Woodlands Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the National Trust and all the other local and national conservation groups are all over the media saying enough is enough?”
“Did we get into archaeology just to facilitate people in getting from Borchester to Hollerton ten minutes faster and Justin Elliott’s millionaire lifestyle?”
There is a Pinteresque silence loaded with meaning.
Everyone is making up their mind and given the choice between the Archers dynasty staying at Brookfield and Justin Elliott oiling the machine with money as a prelude to concreting over more countryside in his development gold rush, the Ambridge Archaeologists may well conclude they cannot remain morally neutral and therefore, they will need to make sure that if possible they end up , not just on the winning side, but on the right side.
Then one of the team rushes in late and throws down a copy of the “Borchester Echo”.
The team reads the banner headline, by lined for local author Jennifer Aldridge.
BY PASS PLAN B BURIED BY ROYAL SAXON CEMETERY FIND.
That was subject to the NDA- Whoever could have tipped off the Media about the discovery of King Penda of Mercia’s Royal Vill and dynastic cemetery? A find which is bigger than Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard combined and which is going to create an all mighty row about whether the site should be destroyed by the road or conserved and displayed?
“Dum-di-dum-de dum-de-dum. Dum-di-dum-de-dum-dum”
NOTE: thePipeLine would like to apologise to any of our readers who are not Archers addicts, and particularly to readers from overseas who might wonder what the heck this editorial is all about. Please be reassured that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible- events in Ambridge permitting.