Turning to God

Godfrey Baseley, the man behind "The Archers", BBC's popular serial on agricultural information, is dead. His 'gossip' was valuable advice to the country's farmers

By Peter B Stone
Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997


an old man of 92 just died in Bromsgrove in the English midlands. His death made frontpage news and his obituaries were long and fulsome, the way they should have been.

Godfrey Baseley founded the British Broadcasting Corporation's ( bbc' s ) national radio serial called "The Archers", 45 years ago. The subtitle which always followed it has become a catchphrase in the language - "an everyday story of countryfolk". Godfrey spelt countryfolk with a capital ' c '. The farmers and those who lived off the land were dear to him and he set out at the end of World War ii to do something to improve their lives and quality of farming. He succeeded beyond all expectations. The Archers was the most successful vehicle of agricultural information ever devised.

His radio programme was broadcast to the nation twice daily, with a weekly omnibus edition and had admirers all over the world, thanks not just to the bbc World Service but to many re-broadcasters around the globe. At its height, it must have had 50, perhaps 100 million listeners. Baseley was an agricultural correspondent for the bbc in the midlands region. He knew his farmers very well as he was brought up among them.

Baseley's aim was to dispense timely advice and raise questions in very small doses to an audience that would always come back for more. His method was to create a 15 minute daily serial, that had pace and suspense but was seeded with news and experiences of changing agricultural practices. He was called Dan Archer (an Anglo-Saxon name) and the programme revolved round his family dairy farm, his neighbours and the local pub where many came in for a pint of beer and gossip.

Even better, Baseley realised, would be to make The Archers represent the ancestral myth of urban Britain. Most town-dwellers have an idealised picture of country life which they hope to part take in when they retire. They dream of thatched cottages, cows chewing the cud, roosters in the village, hedges, reedy streams with trout, pubs and churches with harvest festivals. With luck, Baseley could get both urban and rural listeners so that in the hard world of ratings and audience reaction indices, his programme would have a better chance of making it.

As a matter of fact, the bbc could not have cared less about the agricultural improvement element (never more than five per cent of the total running time) on the programme's agenda. They wanted a replacement for a special agent serial called "Dick Barton" which was criticised for glamourising violence and crime, but was very popular. The Archers was tried out, for lack of anything better, for a trial week at 6.45 am during spring holidays that turned out to be rainy. Lots of farmers sitting at home and looking at the rain happened to listen and liked the serial. A new director-general ( dg ) of the bbc found the proposal for the new programme on top of his agenda and gave it his assent.

However, later, the bbc was to be less than pleased and rather incredulous as well. It received a legal opinion that The Archers was likely to harm the interests of the Shorthorn Breeding Society's members and that the plot of the serial should be amended forthwith.

What had actually happened was that dairy farmers in Britain were turning increasingly to the Friesian or Holstein cows which made a better compromise between bulk milk yields and fattened calves for beef. The traditional types of dairy cows were on their way out on the more progressive farms and it was imperative that "farmer Dan Archer of Brookfield farm" should change his cows albeit with great regret. So Baseley, out of courtesy, wrote to the Breeding Society that he intended to do this, the result of which was a stern letter to the dg of the bbc . They produced evidence to show that altering the breed of cow on a purely imaginary farm would damage their members' interests by a very large sum. It was something no public service broadcasting service should be doing. If they did so, substantial damages would be claimed.

A surprised dg quickly agreed and ordered Baseley to desist. However, by the time the story came out, there was an attack of foot and mouth disease which wiped out all shorthorn cattle. It was later found that a mixed breed that was resistant to the disease were Friesian cattle. A man who had vision and superb judgement thus went on unhindered, to serve the rural poor of Britain.

Peter Stone is a UK-based environmentalist and freelance journalist

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