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Radio soap opera in Britain turns 60; Fans find warmth in mundane plots

As Britons return to work after the New Year, millions are discussing, debating -- even mourning -- the death of a well-loved character on a long-running soap opera.

That's not unusual -- except that the show, "The Archers," has for six decades focused on mostly uneventful lives in an English farming community. Its plots often center on tractor parts, crop rotation and hay thefts.

And it's on the radio.

Despite the unglamorous setting and sedate pace, 5 million listeners a week in Britain -- and others around the world over the Internet -- follow the everyday travails of the landowning Archers, the working-class Grundys and their neighbors in the fictional village of Ambridge: Does that cow have mastitis? How's lambing season going? And how is octogenarian Peggy Archer coming along with her computer lessons?

Inga McVicar, who writes the blog "Pondering the Archers," vividly remembers the first time she heard the show.

"It wasn't a particularly exciting episode," she said. "It was Ed Grundy talking about TB in cows. But there was just something warm and inviting about it.

"You get really passionate about the characters and what happens to them."

"Archers" fans were both excited and alarmed when producers at the BBC announced that the show's 60th anniversary this month would be marked with events that would "shake Ambridge to the core." Theories ranged from a gun rampage by one of the feuding Grundy brothers to a cataclysmic car accident or natural disaster -- although producers dampened speculation by ruling out terrorists, earthquakes and Martians.

In the end, listeners on Sunday heard unmarried cheese-maker Helen Archer, pregnant with her first baby through IVF, give birth to a healthy son after an emergency cesarean. At the end of the episode, affable Nigel Pargetter tumbled to his death while trying to remove a Happy New Year banner from the roof of his stately home, Lower Loxley Hall.

Some disappointed listeners pronounced themselves unshaken to the core. But historian and "Archers" fan Keith Flett said the lack of drama -- "a bloke falls off a roof and somebody has a baby" -- was the essence of the show.

Broadcast in six 15-minute episodes a week, "The Archers" has been touched by celebrity. Judi Dench has been a guest star, and Princess Margaret appeared as herself in 1984.

But its charm lies in the long-running, unshowy presence of its characters. Graham Seed played Nigel for 30 years until the character's death on Sunday. June Spencer, now 91, has played matriarch Peggy Archer since the show began in January 1951.

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