Taking The Bull By The Horns

The Observer

Chris Arnot meets Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn, whose life has painfully imitated the deft art of the soap

THESE are harrowing times in Ambridge. Susan Carter has just been released from prison after serving three months; her husband Neil is in turmoil. Caroline Bone has been in intensive care instead of on her honeymoon. Mark Hebden is in his grave, his wife Shula has been in mourning and many of The Archers’ four million devoted fans have been in tears or close to it.

The orchestrator of this carnage among country folk is quite cheerful in the circumstances. Remarkably so because Vanessa Whitburn, editor of Britain’s longest-running soap opera, is recovering from a near-fatal car accident. With uncanny timing, it happened a fortnight after the recording of Mark’s death in similar circumstances and six days before the episode was broadcast.

Life imitating art, but was it any more than that? Divine retribution, perhaps, against someone who plays God in the studio? She has the power to decide who lives and dies.

She can dabble in the stuff of other people’s souls. They are fictional characters, but all too real to many listeners. So was there not something decidedly spooky about the circumstances of her own crash?

‘No,’ she said, firmly. ‘It never crossed my mind. It was just one of life’s coincidences. I remember waking up after the operation and thinking I’m not supposed to live out the storylines. I laughed. It was a bizarre coincidence. It was hilarious, but it wasn’t spooky. I don’t believe in spooks.’

She does, though, believe in God and has prayed that she keeps up her recovery. ‘When I have difficult experiences, I’ve found my belief helpful, as it is for Shula. We’re trying to show in The Archers how belief helps some and not others. Caroline (who was about to marry the vicar before the accident) is asking how there can be a God when he lets this sort of thing happen. Shula, on the other hand, is finding what happened to Mark is a test of her faith.

‘It’s also a test of the listeners’ faith in her. She’s a popular character, but she had become rather boxed in to a cosy marriage. This enables us to propel her forward.’ Into the arms of Nigel Pargetter, perhaps? She smiled enigmatically. ‘Nigel and Shula go back a long way. We’re looking at the way big events can change the social dynamics of relationships. Let’s say that Lizzie might become increasingly disgruntled.

‘Mark was a bit boring. Richard Derrington, who played him, has said the same. He’s a superb actor who’s not dependent on The Archers, but he’d have liked to carry on. Being in a long-running show is useful for the bank balance apart from anything else. But I can’t run a soap with the prime object of keeping actors in work.’

There is a hint of steel here behind the open, warm and friendly exterior. Kerry Davies, one of two producers who work under her, talks admiringly of the discipline that she has brought to The Archers since she took over three years ago.

‘I think Vanessa learnt a lot from Phil Redmond during her spell on Brookside. The programme is very carefully structured now. She manages the writing team (of eight) like those on a TV soap. Every writer comes to every script meeting,’ says Davies.

The discipline and the much harder storylines are paying off in the ratings – up by three-quarters of a million over the past two years. Caroline Raphael, the new head of BBC radio drama, has held up The Archers to the rest of Radio 4 as an example of how to attract new listeners in their twenties and thirties.

The editor is a youthful 42, whose normally boundless energy has been badly sapped by the accident. ‘I have it for four or five hours a day, then tiredness overwhelms me. I’m told this is quite normal, but it’s hard for someone who thrives on energy. I phoned the office the other day and told them to be careful about pulling Caroline out of this too soon. It takes time.’

It will be May or June before Ms Whitburn is seen back at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. The crash that nearly killed her happened on 11 February. It was a Friday morning and she was looking for a parking space near the studios when her VW Golf was in collision with another vehicle containing three young men. Or so she has been told.

‘My next memory is of Tim Coleman, assistant producer on The Archers, holding my hand and calling my name. I looked beyond him and I could see the smashed windscreen and the ambulance. The paramedics were cutting me out of the car. Perhaps they’d given me an injection because I felt no pain. I thought I just had a few bumps and bruises.’

It turned out that every rib was broken on the right-hand side and one or two on the left. Her pelvis was fractured in two places. She had internal bleeding and a torn liver. She was in surgery for 10 hours.

‘The staff at the trauma unit at Birmingham General are fantastic. They saved my life, but they could be disbanded because of the financial problems of the health authority. It would be a crime.’

She says this with some forcefulness, leaning over the arm of a high-backed chair at her mother’s neat and spacious bungalow in Exeter where she has gone to convalesce. It was here in Devon that she first absorbed ‘the everyday story of countryfolk’ from her grandparents’ wireless. ‘I used to go there from school for my lunch. My grandfather was a plumber. He’d wash his hands and chat for a while, but everything had to be quiet when The Archers came on.’

It was a very different programme in those days. Medical issues were more likely to feature foot-and-mouth disease than the after-effect of car crashes. But the script-writers of the Fifities and Sixties were not averse to disturbing the rural idyll with a shock or two. Sex reared its ugly head in the Sixties when Jennifer Archer (now Aldridge) produced an illegitimate child. A decade before that, Phil Archer’s first wife, Grace, was barbecued in a barn fire to divert attention from the opening night of ITV.

Vanessa Whitburn was three at the time. ‘Phil was getting all glassy-eyed about Grace only the other day,’ she said. ‘That’s the great thing about The Archers. You can have a memory stretching back nearly 40 years. It’s much more fun and less stressful than working on a TV soap.’

Her frustration at being out of the ‘cut-and-thrust’ is almost palpable. ‘The hardest part of this experience is not being able to control my life. I’ve been very dependent on surgeons, physios, friends, colleagues and my Mum.’

As if on cue, her mother came in with the lunchtime tablets and a glass of orange squash to wash them down. ‘I can’t tell you how desperate I am to have a proper drink,’ she said. Then she laughed: ‘Like Julia, I suppose.’ But unlike Julia Pargetter, she is not an alcoholic in a drying-out unit, and her liver has made a full recovery from the accident. The Archers’ character with whom the editor has most in common right now is Caroline.

‘Unlike her, I didn’t have a severe blow on the head and I’ve only lost half an hour out of my memory. But like me, she’s a spirited and independent character. She’s getting irritated and wanting to be back at work. I’m experiencing all that and I’m pleased with our accuracy in portraying the sound of the crash and the story of her recovery.

‘Caroline will never forget what happened to her and I will never forget what happened to me. I don’t know how it will affect me in the long term. Something like this makes you re-assess your life, but not overnight. The fall-out from it will continue for a long time.’

On air and off.

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