Death in The Archers, and #TheArchers

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Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors staff member Abi

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been based in Horsham since 1855 and prides itself on providing excellent service to its local communities of Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham, and Hurstpierpoint at what can often be the most difficult of times. However, the company also sees itself as having a responsibility to educate on matters surrounding death and bereavement – and it’s in this respect that Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers, has had a busy few days on social media, following the death of a much-loved character on the world’s longest-running radio drama.

I’ve been a listener to The Archers for as long as I can remember. Upon its inception in 1951 on the BBC’s ‘Light Programme’, it was billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ with an aim of educating post-war Britain on farming matters. Now a ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ – albeit still with an aim to inform as well as entertain – it continues to be set in the fictional Midlands village of Ambridge. Like any drama, whether in radio, TV, or film, death plays a part as much as other significant events do.

The Archers is still known for the death of Grace Archer in 1955. Listeners heard an episode end with Grace running into a burning barn to save a horse, and needed to tune in again the following night to discover the denouement. The concluding episode clashed with the launch of ITV, the BBC’s first commercial competition, and the timing may well have been designed to overshadow this. It has subsequently been revealed that Grace was the character chosen to die because the actor who played her, was encouraging other actors in the cast to join a trade union[1].

More recent deaths within the drama have often been incidental to a larger plot, or as a way to wrap one up. Nigel Pargetter, fell off his stately home’s roof in the sixtieth anniversary episode – which had been advertised as containing events that would ‘shake Ambridge to the core’. Conflict over where the Brookfield Archers’ matriarch, Jill, would need to reside, was resolved by the death of her daughter’s mother-in-law. Nic Grundy, a young mother of three who had virtually disappeared from the drama, was reintroduced specifically so she could die of sepsis as part of a public awareness storyline.

The exceptions to this rule have been the deaths of two of Ambridge’s elder statesmen, Joe Grundy and Bert Fry. The actor who played Joe for 34 years, Edward Kelsey, died in April 2019 so it was inevitable that the character would follow, which he did in October the same year.

The recent death of Bert Fry, which has led to recent social media commentary, followed the decision by the actor who played him, Eric Allan, to retire. Allan had been playing the character of Bert since 1996, following the death of the previous actor in the part. Bert had been heard infrequently in the drama for several years following the death of his wife, Freda, in floods in 2015. The death was relatively well signposted, with Bert appearing in several episodes for the first time in a while. Bert was always known to write poetry and just before he died, an episode featuring a Harvest Supper gave an excuse for several characters to read one of his better poems and many nice things to be said about him, although the general air of nostalgia led to some speculation about which character might die!

Which brings me to #TheArchers. Many people might be surprised to learn that it’s thought that 5 million people will listen to The Archers in an average week. Accompanying this is a set of busy online communities across Facebook, at least three podcasts, and Twitter, where conversations over topics general and minute are debated using #TheArchers.

It’s mostly through this hashtag that, since Bert’s death, I have been having conversations about death and funerals, and have once again been reminded how important people working in funeral services are to those outside the industry, who are often very inexperienced in the realities of what happens when someone dies.

For example, Bert ‘fell asleep’ in the pub after a game of cribbage and then couldn’t be roused. Therefore, he will be placed under the care of Borsetshire Coroner’s Office and have investigatory work (possibly including a post-mortem) carried out before his funeral can be arranged. Many listeners were not aware of this and there were plenty of comments about registering the death (which won’t happen until after the investigation has concluded). Having said this, Joe Grundy died in remarkably similar circumstances and the production team retrospectively inserted a recent medical consultation with near-death prognosis to ensure his death was classified as ‘expected’.

Regional and international differences also came into play. Bert and Freda’s never-before-heard son Trevor came to Ambridge soon after his father’s death to collect some of his father’s possessions. When he was reported to have gone home again a few days later, many listeners were confused and thought they had missed the funeral, which they assumed had happened. The Archers has a large international following and, in many parts of the world (including Ireland and the USA, where you might expect listenership to be especially high), funerals happen relatively quickly, even when the death is unexpected. I’ve had several conversations on social media about the processes that happen in England (where Bert has died; other countries in the UK have different systems) and how long each component might take, and how this affects another part of the process. For example, a Coroner’s investigation is supposed to conclude within 30 days. If it does take that long, then the funeral will probably not happen until almost six weeks after the person has died, because funerals are not arranged until the investigation is concluded.

I’ve also had conversations about how the effect of individual client choices leads to collective changes in funeral trends. For example, we tend to find in our local area that bereaved people would find having the service at the ‘right’ time of day for them to be more important than having it sooner- although there are, of course, exceptions. Therefore, it is often quite difficult for anyone who would like a funeral at what feels like relatively short notice to be able to be accommodated; next week’s availability has already been taken by people who arranged funerals at least a week before you are trying to. Similarly, once a funeral director has made a commitment to a funeral, they will probably not want to make a booking which is unrealistic from the point of view of necessary staff or vehicles, which would jeopardise both. The situation therefore becomes circular and average waiting times between death and funeral increase.

Funerals haven’t always been dealt with well (or at all) in The Archers – not much was heard of Joe’s, Nigel’s, or Freda’s, and Nic’s funeral reception was used as a way to drive forward another character’s descent into alcoholism – it remains to see how much we will hear of Bert’s. However, while it feels incongruous to talk about something so familiar in a fictional context, I’m also pleased that I have been able to explain how systems and practices can vary and perhaps give context to a drama about which so many people are so passionate- always remembering the show’s initial remit to educate.

[1] William Smethurst, one of The Archers’ editors, claimed that Godfrey Baseley, the radio executive who created the programme, said he ‘killed off’ Grace as Ysanne Churchman’s attempts at unionisation would have been ‘fatal’ to the show.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


November 10, 2021

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