Smart Thinking

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An academic conference has been dedicated to the radio drama. How's that for British eccentricity?

Last year I discovered, city dweller though I am, that I seemed to have inadvertently acquired a passing knowledge of the benefit of herbal leys. For the agriculturally uninitiated, these are grazing pastures for sheep, planted with a mix of different grasses and plants like clover, which are better both for the animal and the soil. How, living in Balham, south west London, did I gain this understanding? Two words: The Archers.

I was lured in by a domestic violence plot line – you might have come across it on the news, since the drama between Helen and Rob Titchener sent 26,000 people to call a BBC domestic abuse helpline. While following my intrigue as to what would happen to Helen, I was learning via osmosis about rural ways.

The Archers is an unlikely seat of learning. It’s twee and the butt of jokes. Even if you’ve never listened to an episode, you’ll know the theme tune. It’s as seamlessly part of British culture as the Queen’s Speech and Blue Peter. Nevertheless, three years ago, three avid Archers fans – Cara Courage, from Tate Modern, Nicola Headlam, of Oxford University, and Peter Matthews, from Stirling university – decided to take this idea that The Archers was educational, and extrapolated it out to the nth degree. This weekend, serious academics and researchers from a multiplicity of fields will gather to speak at Academic Archers, a conference centred on a love for the radio soap, and a passion for their fields. 

The first session, for example, will focus on Ambridgonomics and will take the plot lines of the programme to explore the housing crisis, house-sharing, and what placemaking looks like in rural communities. Later in the day is a series of lectures under the umbrella title Ambridgistas – Women of Ambridge, exploring what The Archers says about contemporary values on gender and sexuality, on the one hand, to women in cricket on the other.

Some sessions are completely left-field: Ambridgology and Counter-insurgency doctrine is one of my favourites, delivered by James Armstrong, political advisor to NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. And mad keen Archers fan, obviously.

It’s an idea as eccentrically British as the programme that inspired it, but it’s also inspiring to think that with some creativity, the most mundane and regular parts of the the fabric of life, can be turned to thought provoking conversation and imaginative learning. 

Yes, my knowledge of herbal leys is largely irrelevant, but don’t knock or mock The Archers till you’ve tried it. Who knows what inspired ideas you might come up with?