The Ambridge Delusion

The long-running serial ‘The Archers’ works best when it creates illusion of being there. The writers make the audience almost believe they are overhearing something as it occurs.How do they achieve this sense of immediacy?

First off, there is no prefiguring: no-one announces what will occur in the future. They cannot possibly know, so they don’t foretell. This applies well to a novel too.

Secondly, there is little back story. OK , sometimes a newly-arrived character will be brought up to speed – but that kind of exposition can be clumsy even in experienced hands. Best not to have ‘As you know…’ dialogue, then.

Thirdly, there are rarely more than two characters interacting in any one scene. There’s no confusion that way. This seems a reasonable idea to pursue, in dialogue especially – no problems with attribution then.

Furthermore, characters are created by layering. Habitual Archers listeners will have heard many different aspects of the regulars over the years – but only one at a time. We compose our view of the characters out of the evidence we’ve been given.

It cracks on because there is only dialogue and implied action. Nobody wastes time reflecting and informing you what they are thinking – you have to work it out.

Finally, there’s no voice-over. No busy-body author telling you what to think or describing the scene in boring detail – that’s left to a few choice sound effects and your imagination.

All-in-all, not a bad way to think about keeping it apparently real.

Memento Mori

I’m writing this in The Drift In Surf Cafe in The Witterings. Two ladies sit in the window corner looking out at the rain discussing the celebrities that have died recently…

            ‘You don’t know when you might be struck down’

            ‘Mmm – you’ve got to make the best of what’s happening now.’

January 2011 seems to be haunted by death – the news and real life seem to be full of it. We heard of Gerry Rafferty and Mick Karn – notable for moments of musical fame that gave pleasure to many – and Pete Postlethwaite who left a remarkable body of work in a relatively short life.

As a children’s writer, it was Dick King-Smith that really caught my attention. So many people tweeted and commented with regret at his passing: parents who loved reading ‘The Hodgeheg’ out loud, children who remember ‘The Queen’s Nose’ with great affection, and my old teacher colleagues who used his life story to enthuse young writers. He was an inspiration for late starters like me too – though sadly I never told him. But I do not grieve for him.

Instead I delight in the lovely books he left behind, ‘Babe’ the popular film inspired by his ‘Sheep Pig’ and the happy memories of so many people. I feel the same about L.M. Boston: she had saved the Manor at Hemingford Grey, brought comfort to pilots in WWII with the wind-up gramophone and entertained, scared and thrilled many children with the ‘Green Knowe’ books. I treasure a letter I have from her written in her 90s. My only sadness is not visiting the Manor while she was alive – the moral is: write to your favourite authors sooner rather than later!

Dick King Smith was an atheist, I learnt, which made me think about all sorts of alternative burials. I am much moved by the effort loving families make to create a special event; including music that really means something, sending the body off with hand-picked mementoes, and well chosen readings. Celebration lives alongside grief.

It’s an odd thing to write – but I like handmade willow coffins and beautifully printed card ones as well as the traditional wooden ones. I like woodland eco burials – and six foot high weeping angels. I enjoy a good graveyard and obituaries are a great read: Radio 4’s Last Word is well worth a listen. It is the sense of lives well lived that matters.

The writers of ‘The Archers’ tapped into that theme with the momentous 60th Anniversary episode: Nigel Pargetter was a character who loved life. Fictional deaths move us when they resonate with our sense of what life is.

As a person of faith, I believe there is more, but that’s no excuse for wasting this one. Carpe Diem works well whatever your beliefs.