Like many other people across the country, and even across the world, I’m an Archers listener.
Recently I’ve become an addict, embroiled in the voyeuristic process of watching the loathsome Rob Titchener erode Helen Archer’s confidence – and everything else.
I’ve hung over the radio, listening to every second of the twelve minute episodes, craving more detail, more information, more time. But the scriptwriters give us tiny jewels and we go away and tweet and wonder and read articles about it in the Guardian, coming back night after night to glean a little more of this awful story.
Now I’m not here to comment on the content, lots of people who know far more have said wiser things than I ever could, but I’m interested in the form.
What intrigues me is that we know these stories can have no end – they’re soap operas – like real life. Unless all the characters die in a freak accident their stories will go on into potential old age, so what’s in it for us?
Some might say, suspense.
I’d say, it was anxiety.
If the episodes were longer – and we had the whole thing in say, two and half hours, I suspect we might lose interest. But the format builds anxiety. It’s like cliffhanger chapters every twelve minutes. This way, we get hooked. It’s a kind of worried buzz. I’m sure I’m not the only person who failed to breathe throughout Sunday’s episode.
If, like me you’re a fan of crime drama, you may have spent this spring carrying episodes of Shetland, Luther, Hinterland, Happy Valley, Marcella, The Night Manager, Trapped and Undercover – all in your head. You might even have tried to catch up on previous series at the same time, new Shetland, old Shetland overlapping.
It’s all very tense. For an hour you’re caught up in it and then left clawing the TV for the next episode. If, like me, you watch enough of it, and the Danish sea captain is the same as the victim’s father from a previous series, you can get quite muddled – which adds to the anxiety.
Curiously, these stories don’t have to follow the conventions of story arcs or resolutions, or character development. They can actually be full of plot holes too. But they leave you desperate for more and completely unable to satisfy it except by waiting or watching in binges. (Preferred method in this house)
And I’d argue that it may get ratings, but it’s not a natural or a robust way to tell a story.
I’d argue, that when we first gathered around fires in the dark and told stories – we were held in the storyteller’s circle for the whole narrative. We sat absorbed, learning every scrap there was to know. We probably asked questions, we probably heard the story more than once. And it satisfied us.
That pattern has been followed by most of our literature over the centuries. Our love of books comes from the ability to read at your own pace, overnight if you have to, until you get to the finale. A child’s reading can often take off when the story or the character grabs them and they HAVE to get to the conclusion. When we enter into a book, we seek something that heightens our anxiety, thrills us, but lets it fall again at the end. Something that explores and potentially resolves our fears.
Which is why I’ll be sticking to crime fiction from the stacks rather than the iplayer from now on –
Except – is it nearly 7 o clock – shall I just find out what’s happened to that loathsome Rob Titchener?