Ghost stories on the radio, and the page.

I listened to three ghost stories on BBC Radio 4 last week. A new decade was beginning, and I was tuned in to three fifteen minute stories that were over a hundred years old. They may have been the best bit of my radio week.

This wasn’t just about the excellence of the stories, or of the actor reading, it was a clever piece of programming that began in the Radio 4 soap opera, called The Archers. The edges of this fictional village have often blurred and blended into the real world. In its early years, this was deliberate.

The soap was developed in collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Then, it was billed as an everyday story of country folk.

These days The Archers is billed as, a contemporary drama in a rural setting. It’s set in a fictional village called Ambridge, in a fictional county called Borsetshire, which is somewhere near Birmingham. The story plays out in fifteen minutes slots on weekdays, with an omnibus on Sunday mornings.

As autumn 2019 drew to a close, several Ambridge residents began to ask who would volunteer to organise the village panto. Several characters were approached, but – ‘Oh no, they wouldn’t.’

Tension in the village, and amongst the listeners, mounted. Ambridge theatricals have often been broadcast by Radio 4 as a spin-off, over Christmas. Surely this tradition wasn’t going to be cut?

Not so much cut, as transformed, thanks to a Halloween episode. Jim Lloyd, a retired university lecturer, seriously spooked Robert Snell, another character, by repeating a Victorian ghost story he knew, as they were sitting in an isolated bird-watching hide. By December Jim had been persuaded to tell similar stories to a bigger audience as a Christmas Show.

We listened to fragments of the rehearsals in his performance place, the attic of a local stately home. He clashed first with his stage manager, then his artistic director. While they thrashed out artistic differences, for this listener, the surroundings became clear, even tangible.

It would be almost dark. The attic debris has been cleared to the side of the room, and seats added. It’s a place of shadows, of objects laid aside for decades: random and the once valued. Above are rafters, dusty and cobwebbed. The floor is bare boards. Jim is seated in an armchair, with his book, facing his audience.

On opening night tension mounted. Curtain-up time approached and only four people had arrived. Maybe the premise was too unusual, the setting too odd… Jim was talking of calling it off, when a busload of listeners trooped in.

The show was, of course, a smash hit, a sell out. Other characters discussed it, raved about it, regretted failing to get a ticket.

I now know what they missed, because Jim’s tales went out in that separate slot on the schedule. The first one, broadcast on December 30th, was The Room in the Tower, by E.F. Benson. It’s a 1912 story. Lost Hearts, the 1895 story by M.R. James went out the next day, and The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, published in 1902, on New Years Day.

The long cold nights of winter are, of course, the ideal time for ghost stories. I first read tales like these in traditional teenage fashion, under the bed-covers, with a torch, when I was supposed to be asleep. I can still recall being aware of every sound, as the house cooled and settled into silence, and menace.

John Rowe, the actor who plays Jim Lloyd, paced his reading carefully, convincingly. His was the voice of someone recalling something they are still struggling to understand, it was perfectly suited to the confessional tone of these beautifully designed story openings: ‘It was when I was about 16...’; ‘It was in September of the year 1811…’; ‘Without, the night was cold and wet...’.

Many turn-of-the-century authors wrote as if their story were being spoken. Some actually described the family and friends at a fireside. We imagine the flickering of the gas or candle-light, turned down so that it fails to quite reach the corners of the room. Notice how those shadows are inclined to dance…

The broadcast stories needed no sound effects. They were abridged, by Jeremy Osbourne and Jeremy Howe.

John Rowe, an actor, playing a character who is taking on the voice of another fictional character, read all of the necessary voices beautifully – chillingly.

Warning, genre shifts in progress.

Danger_Of_Death_Sign_fullAnyone who knows much about British crime fiction will be able to tell you that there are certain areas of Britain that have notably high ‘unexpected-death’ rates.   In case you’ve missed out on the genre, then take my advice, and don’t think of moving to places such as Oxford, Grantchester, Broadchurch, Midsummer, Shetland, Lochdubh or Carsley.

Also, should you find yourself sharing ‘an ‘otel’ with a Miss Marple or Hurcule Poirot, move to another one immediately.  That may well put you to the head of the suspect list when the bodies start falling, but at least you’ll not be amongst the deceased.  Better the shenanigans of hen and stag parties in the bar beneath your back-of-the-building bedroom, than that, surely.

Such deductions, you may think, are stating the obvious.  Well yes, that’s my point.  Know your genre, and there are certain givens we can rely on – even anticipate.

danger-of-death-signIt hardly needs me to add that in those other genres death tends to be an occasional occurrence, so why have I?  Well, I enjoy a radio soap opera called The Archers.  It offers listeners a fifteen minute visit to a village called Ambridge, in the heart of England, six days each week.

The programme was created in 1950, to educate farmers and small-holders about the latest farm-technology.  There were small and large farming families displaying varying degrees of efficiency and enthusiasm for change: it was dramatized propaganda about increasing food production.

Growing up, The Archers was a small part of my background, because it followed the news, which had followed the weather forecast, which was always on at lunch-times.  By then, there was a stronger focus on family story-lines.  We laughed about the characters, but continued to listen. I’ve taken breaks, sometimes for months, but it’s easy to slip back into the routines.

This week, though, I missed two crucial episodes, and when I tuned in on Friday evening I was tipped straight into the death scene of a young mother.  Where did that come from?  Apparently, Nic cut her arm on a rusty nail on Sunday, and her cold symptoms were actually sepsis taking hold.

In retrospect, it was heavily foreshadowed.  Lately Nic has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather-in-law, Joe Grundy.  He’s a widower, and they’ve been discussing relationships and love in great depth, with a lot of emphasis on how he coped after the death of ‘my Susan’. Clearly, this was not just Valentine-fever, it was preparation.

I forgot that The Archers has shifted its target from farm-issues to general social-issues.  I was partially lulled by assuming that there had been enough high-drama in recent years, and we were probably due a restful period.  As it is, at the moment we’ve got toxic waste seeping into the local river where several of the younger characters have been wild-swimming (yes, in the middle of winter – brave souls); a drug-dealing teenager who nearly caused the death of his cousin, and a local businessman covering-up his part in creating a flood that caused the death of Burt Fry’s wife!

Thinking about that, I began to look back.  I’m hazy on dates, but since Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall from the roof of Lower Loxely Hall, there’ve been several other serious incidents and there are already more ominous foreshadowings seeping across the Borchester landscape.

I’m picturing the office at the BBC, where the Archers is planned, disappearing under a heap of information leaflets about the latest issues that should be included.  Maybe, when Julie Beckett, the programme producer walks into the production meetings she takes a heap and auctions them off to the writers.  What other explanation can there be for this descent into darkness?

hazard warning