Every evening, just before 7 o'clock, people all over Britain tune in to Radio 4 to hear the latest episode of The Archers – the longest-running radio soap opera in the world. The soap was first conceived by The Ministry of Agriculture as a way of educating British farmers on new agricultural methods after World War II. But 60 years on, The Archers is something of a British institution.
The fictional village of Ambridge and its “everyday story of country folk” has had its fair share of trials and tribulations, with bankruptcy, robbery and tearaway teens regularly featuring in this rural soap. The Archers can be seen as a microcosm of the UK with its range of accents, arguments and affairs. But one story line The Archers has failed to successfully integrate is that of disability.
Some might wonder whether it really matters if disability is accurately represented in this fictional rural idyll somewhere south of Birmingham. But it does.
Disabled people’s lives are often missing in cultural representations and sociological analysis. But there is increasing evidence that cultural representations of disability have very “real” impacts on the lives of disabled people.
Disability Studies is a relatively new academic discipline, emerging in the 1990s. Until then, discussion of disability in academia was often left to the fields of medicine and psychology.
Traditionally, these disciplines treated disability as a “problem” located firmly within individual people. Disability Studies, on the other hand, locates the “problem” of disability firmly within the social world and explores disability as a form of social oppression. Much like hetero/sexism, racism, poverty and imperialism.
In their 2001 book Narrative Prosthesis: Disability & the Dependencies of Discourse, authors Mitchell and Snyder explore the pervasive use of disability in European and North American literature. They argue that, in cultural texts, disability serves as “narrative prosthesis” – disabled characters appear as crutches to shore up the “norm” elsewhere in the text.
Carpenter Darrell was led astray by workmates into receiving stolen goods and was imprisoned. This combination of events led to him engaging, sporadically, with mental health services before leaving Ambridge.
His temporary presence served an important role as narrative prosthesis; when Darrell fell on hard times, the focus was not on the issues faced by mental health service users in a time of austerity, but on the character development of Shula, an established Ambridge resident, as a helpful and altruistic villager.
Similarly, when Dan Hebden-Lloyd was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, this too played a crucial role in plot development; it facilitated an affair between Shula, Dan’s mother, and Richard Locke, their GP. In both these examples, disability appeared and then quickly disappeared in order to shore up plot and characterisation.
When Bethany Tucker was born with Down’s Syndrome in 2013, at first, it seemed as if Bethany would grow up in Ambridge alongside her peers. However, by the time Bethany was ready to start pre-school, it was clear that this was not to be the case; she would be leaving Ambridge to get “specialist” help in Birmingham.
And so, yet again, the presence of disability served as a prosthetic device, this time to explain why Bethany’s parents – who loved Ambridge and had lived in the village for years with family and friends around them – would leave and go to Birmingham.
If the scriptwriters were to bring back Bethany, they wouldn’t be short of dramatic opportunities. The search for appropriate schooling or accessible and affordable childcare, as families of disabled children will know, is high drama indeed. As an adult in Ambridge, would Bethany find a job or, like 94% of people with learning disabilities, would she be excluded from the world of work?
By representing disability only for the purpose of narrative prosthesis in Ambridge, the scriptwriters have missed an opportunity to explore the wider social-political contexts of disability. Too often in drama, audiences learn fleetingly about the medical nature of a particular condition, rather than growing to know a character and the opportunities and challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.