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The Archers proves it can tackle the big issues

Moving: John Rowe gave a terrific performance as the abused Jim Lloyd
Moving: John Rowe gave a terrific performance as the abused Jim Lloyd Credit: Amelia Troubridge

The Archers (Radio 4, Friday) has done that thing it sometimes  does where it muddles along for a while without any proper drama as  the storylines get sillier and everyone just gets progressively more annoying, and then, all of a sudden, you remember why it’s the best soap  opera in the world.

We’ve had months of Jim Lloyd exhibiting increasingly strange and prickly behaviour, including being unreasonable at a party thrown in his honour and demanding his son, Alistair, move out of the house. On Friday, Jim tearfully revealed to Alistair and pal Jazzer the reason  why he’d been having such a difficult time. He told them that when he was eight years old he had been sexually abused by a neighbour. He had kept  it secret all his life, but when the abuser himself – a man named  Harold Jayston – unexpectedly turned up at that party a few weeks ago, all  of the memories had come back.

It was a painful and deeply moving episode, with John Rowe putting in a magnificent performance as Jim. Clearly this is the start  of a major storyline which will  have a significant place in Ambridge history. It’s been developed with Survivors UK, an organisation supporting male survivors of  sexual abuse, and it’s the weightiest storyline so far for The Archers’s  new editor, Jeremy Howe.

Michael Lumsden plays Alistair Lloyd Credit: Gary Moyes

Whenever a difficult issue like this crops up in Ambridge – the coercive control and domestic abuse storyline of Helen and Rob also comes to mind – it provokes questions about how gritty the series should be. Ambridge is not Albert Square. 

But the topic of sexual abuse, and  its emotional scars across decades, is important. As Jim, Rowe was exceptional: his voice was frail and hurt as he told his story, but with a quiet strength burning underneath. His son Alistair (played by Michael Lumsden) was sensitive and encouraging, comforting his father while also sounding utterly heartbroken. Jazzer (Ryan Kelly) was all unfiltered rage on Jim’s behalf,  a sort of Greek chorus plonked onto the banks of the Am, desperate to hunt down the sick pervert who’d  hurt his friend.

Jazzer can be infuriating, but I was glad he was  there to voice a wider sense of  outrage at the crime of historic sexual abuse that has, for so many people, been a corrosive secret they should never have had to keep. In  that moment, we were all Jazzer. It was a deeply moving episode, and  The Archers is to be applauded for approaching one of the major social issues of our time with such sensitivity.

Starlings were introduced to America as a romantic gesture but turned out to be an invasive species Credit: Susan Walker

Shakespeare’s Starling (Radio 4, Monday) was an exquisite documentary about eccentric pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin who released a cage of European starlings in New York in 1890. Schieffelin was  a Shakespeare obsessive whose  dream was to introduce all of the  birds mentioned by Shakespeare  to America. But starlings made themselves particularly at home, proliferated rapidly and out-competed native hole-nesting birds, becoming  a devastating agricultural pest. In  1960 a starling bird strike brought down a passenger jet in Boston Harbor, killing 62 people.

Producer Zoë Comyns spoke to ornithologists and Shakespeare specialists about birds and Shakespeare in America. Starlings appear just once in Shakespeare, when Hotspur fantasises about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” in Henry IV Part I to torment the  king. At the end of the programme,  we were left with the truly eerie  call of a starling who had been taught how to say “Shakespeare bird”. Its owner had considered teaching it  how to say “invasive junk bird”, but decided that might be a bit mean.

Comedian Harry Enfield Credit: Ian West

Speaking of mean, it’s not kind to laugh, but I did nearly choke on my coffee when I heard Florence Foster Jenkins’s famously bad rendition  of the Queen of the Night’s Aria from The Magic Flute on Private Passions (Radio 3, Sunday). It was chosen by comedian Harry Enfield who was a cracking guest of Michael Berkeley’s, talking with wit and wisdom about his love of opera  and comedy, often both at once (as in Jenkins’s case). Enfield also recalled reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and being startled to come across a reference to his own grandparents, who were acquaintances of hers. Unfortunately, Woolf hadn’t been generous.  “I’d rather be dead in a field than have tea with the Enfields,” she wrote.