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I don’t like surprises. I like clues. I like hints. I like warnings. I like to plan. I like a back-up plan. I like slow ripening. I hate an ambush or an avalanche. Throw me a surprise party and I’ll clip you round the funny bone.
Yet I have enjoyed being surprised these past few weeks. An old friend, reliable and stately, is knocking all her loyal pals for six. She once was soothing, easy company; now she has us all on the edge of our seats. On Twitter, famous writers salute her. Philip Pullman even called her “Hardyesque”. Yes, it’s The Archers I am speaking of. It’s having a heyday.
The dialogue is so acute at the moment that twice I have jotted some down. If Noël Coward and David Mamet had put their heads together, I’m not sure they’d have bettered the conversation pertaining to the Aldridges’ new kitchen. People are performing scenes from it in their front rooms, I suspect. Here’s a snippet:
Jennifer: “The initial outlay might seem a lot but ultimately we’ll be saving space and energy and money.”
Brian: “Over the course of a couple of lifetimes perhaps . . . What’s wrong with buying a kitchen from the high street? Or, better still, one of those flat-pack places.”
Jennifer: “Did you say flat-pack?”
Brian: “Yes . . . ”
Jennifer: “How dare you!”
This is a storm in a teacup but the teacup is already brimming with the history of a marriage: his bigotry, her social climbing; his self-perceived heroism for “taking her on as a single mother”, her endurance of his philandering; his vain, macho posturing wearing thinner as he ages, her raising of his child from an extramarital affair; their empty nest syndrome . . .
When you are shopping to assuage loss and longing – and to crucify the Joneses – there are no limits.
“You’re talking as if the kitchen were just a place to prepare your meals!” Jennifer says.
“What else is it for?” her husband answers. Dear, oh dear, oh dear.
“After everything I’ve done for you over the years, one little thing . . . ” she pleads.
“I don’t believe in giving in to terrorists,” he counters sternly. At these lines I stood to applaud, even though I was in the car. I was shocked. I was laughing. What a way to carry on!
Even better than this dispute was the domestic dance of Helen and Rob, during their first official stir fry. (Disclosure: Louiza Patikas, who plays Helen Archer, is a friend I love.) Archer’s mixture of vulnerability, exasperating neediness, courage, pride, blind hope and lust is as magnificent a piece of acting as you ever get on the radio. The depth and weight of her need for things to go right, to be right, lends a fraught pressure to every syllable she utters.
Stir-fry-gate was a masterclass in casual bullying and misogyny. Marinating chicken, amid a heap of chopped-up veg, Helen was told that steaks would be “more substantial” and off Rob popped to buy some. “I should start Henry’s bath,” he told her as he left. Is there anything more maddening than childcare instructions delivered by the party who is vacating the premises? Yes: someone saying the dinner you are cooking will not do. On his return there was: “What about your hair this evening?” After this, when she reached for the wine: “No, no, I think you might have had enough Little Miss Giggles . . . ”
This comment reminded you that for thousands of years in this country, in this world, people believed men were better than women and it will take a very, very long time for every shred of that belief to die away.
These scenes went to the heart of Helen’s character, signalling all the difficulties she’s known. For a recovering anorexic such as Helen to be told her half-cooked stir-fry must be replaced by steak and mash would be torture beyond endurance. We remember her early outburst to Rob that she was so unhappy in her life before he arrived; we remember that he dumped her before Christmas; we may even recall the suicide of her last serious partner – all these layers and layers of complications straitening her options now, forcing her to see good things that may not be there. We think of Rob’s wife living not far away and still too close to his heart, we suspect.
I text Louiza. “Worried about you – I mean Helen.”
“Helen’s never been happier,” she replies. Damn, she’s good!
This is drama that sucks the oxygen from the rest of the evening: the noble art of entertainment in your kitchen six nights a week. And yes, it has been Hardyesque. What a surprise.
More columns at ft.com/boyt