Rippingale - Birthplace of the Archers
The Archers, BBC R. 4's "every-day story of country folk," is the world's longest-running soap opera. In its hey-day, upwards of 25 million tuned in - even today more than 5 million switch on to hear the latest.
So, 60 years ago, how and why did it come about? Archers fans will tell you that the home of 'The Archers' is Inkberrow in Worcestershire, which over the years it has become, but where did it all start - where is the birthplace? Although well documented few people know that the original inspiration came from Rippingale in Lincolnshire.
In August 1946 Baseley came to Rippingale and neighbouring Dowsby to meet local farmer Henry Burtt and to record a programme about his unusual farming methods.
Henry Burtt was an internationally recognised expert on seed crops, a leading member of the NFU and a Government advisor. If you drank Ribena in those days, the blackcurrants came from Rippingale - the village was surrounded by fields of blackcurrant bushes and mustard and cress amongst many others.
Burtt said he was involved in a perpetual struggle against the elements, pests and diseases and frequently against Governments. Burtt's son Stephen was also interviewed. These conversations provide clues not only about how The Archers came about, but also where some of its most memorable characters originated.
The BBC called a conference of farmers, farming organisations and Government departments, to develop ideas how to make farmers move with the times and finally on 3rd June 1948, everyone came together - so many they booked the Council Chamber at Birmingham Town Hall. It lasted all day - suggestions, ideas, discussions, arguments - but nothing new, nothing which clicked until, almost at the end of the meeting, a man stood up at the back of the hall. It was Henry Burtt and what he had to say was the real birth of The Archers, - "I've listened very carefully to all that has been said and discussed, but it seems to me that what is really wanted is a farming Dick Barton" and he then sat down. Heads turned, there was loud laughter - "What on earth was he talking about?" It brought the meeting to a close.
"Dick Barton - Special Agent," was the most popular radio programme of the day with an audience of 25 million - a melodrama which left Mr Barton in startling, cliff-hanger situations at the end of every episode.
Godfrey Baseley couldn't get it out of his mind. What did Henry Burtt mean? How could a down-to-earth farmer like Burtt come up with such a fantastic idea? He rang Burtt and within days, Baseley was back in Rippingale listening to Henry Burtt outline the drama of everyday life in farming country.
Henry Burt produced very expensive crops which needed a huge workforce. Every night he went to bed knowing that life provided a constant threat to his own and their livelihoods. Too much rain - or too little - gales or fires - would not just ruin him, it would be disastrous for everyone who depended on him. He took Baseley round Rippingale, pointing at blackcurrant bushes saying "big-bud disease" was as dangerous to him and his employees as a pit full of crocodiles was to Dick Barton - but with no miracle rescue at hand. Baseley began to understand what was in Henry Burtt's mind.
The Bull Inn Rippingale
It took nearly two years to develop scripts and to get a trial run of five episodes on the air in the Midlands only - and a close reading of the transcript of "Farm Visit" two years earlier tells you all you need to know about who he based the Archers on - not to mention two of its leading characters - Dan Archer and his son Phil.
In the following years the BBC chose, for convenience as it was close to the BBC Midland production centre, Inkberrow in Worcestershire as "Ambridge", and it become a huge tourist attraction. Rippingale isn't Ambridge, but today's Archers fans might well be fascinated with the birthplace of their favourite programme.
Norman Painting - 27th August 2009
The rest is history - except for one very important postscript. In mid-2007 I wrote to Norman Painting, the longest serving member of the cast. He played Phil Archer for over 60 years - and wrote hundreds of scripts. We were hoping to get more insight into how it all started.
Two years after I'd written to Norman, out of the blue, he rang me. He was quite blunt - he was dying - his doctors knew it, he knew it and was reconciled to it. He owed it to the programme to respond to a desk full of unanswered letters and do, as much as he could, what was asked of him. His courage and determination were overwhelming. I was reluctant to impose on a dying man, but he insisted. I asked whether we could visit him with a video camera and record some of his early memories.
It was a shock to meet him face-to-face - he looked ........terrible, as you'll see in the accompanying photo. He was welcoming, charming, funny and full of gossip. He talked and talked .....for an hour, then we packed up and departed, leaving him to rest. Two months later he passed away. RIP Norman. We intend to produce a DVD of the interview in the near future.
© Jim Latham, February 2012
Jim Latham, who has done most of the research into the story is happy to give talks to groups of Archers fans. Click here to contact Jim via the website email.