It is one of the pleasures of the rural dweller to poke fun at The Archers and claim that it is not so much an everyday tale of country folk as EastEnders with a little bit of mud of its boots and the odd sound of mooing in the background. So when the BBC Radio 4 drama appointed Sean O'Connor as its new editor in September, with a CV that included the TV shows Footballers Wives, Hollyoaks and, yes, even EastEnders, few could resist having a pop.
Even the Western Daily Press indulged in some gentle Beeb-bashing, labelling the news about the new editor a 'heartsink moment' and warning we could be in for more preposterous story lines with barely any relevance to the rural community. And it matters because, outside of Countryfile – which is too often dumbed down and 'prettified' for a largely urban audience – there is very little of direct interest or relevance to a rural audience on either radio or TV these days. The Archers, for all its faults, has been the last bastion of entertainment in a truly rural setting put out by our national broadcaster and many in the countryside jealously guard it, even though it often falls woefully short of expectations.
So three months into the job, how is Mr O'Connor, shaping up? Well, the traditional soap opera fare of relationship-based stories have, if anything, moved even more to the fore under his editorship. Regular listeners will be getting mightily fed up with Helen's constant distress that her affair with the married Rob, recently installed manager at Brian Aldridge's new mega-dairy, is over. Her drunken ramblings about how much she still loves him, even though he has gone back to his wife and given her the elbow, are becoming particularly tiresome.
But on Thursday night there was an episode that at least gave hope that the rural backdrop against which The Archers has been played for the last six decades, may once again be coming into sharper focus.
One of the main plots running in recent weeks has involved dairy farmer Ed Grundy's struggles to make a living from his modest herd, selling milk direct to the community. It is, as anyone involved in dairy farming will know, a precarious way to make a living at the best of times and Ed – son of the once notorious Grundy farming family – is working at the very margins of viability.
To make matters worse, his herd has been hit by Neosporosis, a serious disease of cattle and one of the major causes of abortion in dairy cows. It means they cannot carry calves to full term and can't produce milk – pretty much a disaster for anyone in dairying.
Ed has learned, from vet Alistair, that the infection can be spread by dog faeces and he has been waging war against local dog walkers crossing his land, and attempting to keep them out. Enter brother William – a long-time and deeply hated sibling for reasons regular listeners will know all about. Save to say there was a woman and child involved. William is the gamekeeper on the estate, which actually owns the land Ed rents and needs to bring his dogs onto Ed's farm to 'dog in' the pheasants before shoot days.
Thursday night's episode had Ed and Dad Eddie walking the farm with a couple of shotguns, ostensibly to pot rabbits for the pot. It was also an attempt by Eddie – one of the stalwarts of The Archers and a carefully drawn rural 'type' who has successfully morphed from straw-sucking comic creation into a far more believable country dweller – to cheer up his son. The atmosphere felt right, the sound of a shotgun discharged at a pigeon flying in to roost and missed by Eddie, who cursed his ill-luck, rang true and William's efforts to control his two dogs, including the young pup that is the pet of the brothers' once disputed son, George, was nicely played. The drama – a well-judged radio cliff-hanger – came when, in the half light Eddie saw the pup chasing a hare, and, infuriated because he believed it was a dog that could be putting his cattle at risk, fired off a cartridge in the half-light, killing the dog.
Not War and Peace or Hamlet, perhaps. But a strong rural storyline played out against a believable countryside soundscape. And, for good measure, it followed an insert telling a far more lighthearted story of David Archer's Hereford steer coming a narrow second – again – at the local Christmas primestock show.
In an interview earlier this month Archers' editor O'Connor suggested the 13-minute episodes were ideal for downloading onto an iPod and therefore perfect for busy people juggling packed lives in the digital age. That may be going a bit far. Yet long gone are the days when families gathered around the radio set every tea time and young children had their bedtime set by the strains of Barwick Green that close the programme.
The commute home from work for those with their heart in the country is now Archers listening time for many. The new editor says his true influence won't kick in until spring. If he keeps this up, however, he might just silence some of the critics.