America needs ‘Los Archers’

Posted on | October 29, 2009 | No Comments

Norman Painting (left) as Phil Archer in the BBC serial "The Archers." The photograph was taken in December 1954, four years after the show's launch as a propaganda tool to improve agricultural practice after World War II.

Norman Painting (left) as Phil Archer in the BBC serial "The Archers." The photograph was taken in December 1954, four years after the show's launch as a propaganda tool to improve agricultural practice after World War II. Photo: Frank Morley and Getty via The Guardian

THE NEWS today of the death of Norman Painting, 85, the actor who for almost 60 years played Phil on the British radio series “The Archers,” is as good a time as any to suggest that America steal his act.

The Archers started as pure propaganda. Launched in 1950 and set in the fictional village of Ambridge, the BBC Radio 4 drama centered on the lives of two farming families, the Archers and the Grundys. Embedded in the story lines were constant themes of agricultural improvement, the kind needed to feed a hungry Britain after World War II.

As the caricatures went, the Archers, who adopted modern practices, were held up as progressive ideals and the more shambolic Grundys were the salutary alternative.

Almost immediately, “The Archers” reached parts of the farming community that official notices did not. If the Ministry of Agriculture issued new rules for, say, milk quotas or dairy parlor cleanliness, the fate for those who ignored them would become a plot line on the Archers.

To imagine how well public safety propaganda melds with drama and how it worked on “The Archers,” think of the way that the plot lines of “ER” proselytized about vaccinations and drinking and driving — then apply the theory to a radio show and to cows.

As “The Archers” grew in popularity, the ag message increasingly was lost on a swelling urban audience that, increasingly, tuned in purely for the soap opera angles of the program. No program had a better village meddler. Today, “The Archers” is a format for all manner of social messaging.

What relevance could this have to the US, and Los Angeles in particular? Imagine if instead of re-broadcasting “Prairie Home Companion” every weekend (a show arguably less relevant to Los Angeles than “The Archers”), one of our National Public Radio affiliates (that’s you KPCC) did an Archers-like program exploring the lives of Californian gardeners?

Imagine that it is written and produced by Latinos. There would be no shortage of talent or plot lines: what happens when the breadwinner in a family is rendered deaf by his leaf blower, or gardeners as butts of neighborhood disputes, or what happens to those who don’t read the fine print on the pesticide package (as if anyone does) and so on. The social satire between gardeners and the families who hire them might be too rich for any of us to take.

Sixty years later, Latino theater would be enriched, gardeners might have safer working conditions and better practices, there might be better understanding between home-owners and gardeners, and Southern California might have a hit serial on KPCC.

In the meantime, RIP Norman Painting. Who knows how many farmers moved away from organophosphate sheep dip or withdrew feed tainted by the mad cow agent from their herds because of your 59 years at the mike? Not a bad legacy.




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