#nowlistening: a sky full of masculinities. The Ed Sheeran constellation over Ambridge.

Goodness me, the airwaves across Borsetshire have been a-flutter in the last couple of weeks. We’ve been a little quiet over here at Ambridge FM as our new, entirely fictional and completely invisible, radio mast has been installed at the top of Lakey Hill. But over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but notice a theme emerging: the various colours of masculinity on display across Ambridge and how Ed Sheeran seemed to be at the centre of it all.

As the distance between Toby and Pip became somewhat galactic it was Sheeran’s Castle on the hill that underscored the moment Toby presumed too much of Pip’s affection for him. Ordering a takeaway she didn’t want, as the food chilled, the relationship finally soured and all the while Sheeran nostalgically mused on the rural idyll by singing:

‘I’m on my way, driving at 90 through those country lanes, singing to Tiny Dancer’.

Ah…a lyrical yearning for those teenage years that feel so horribly complex at the time – where danger and youthful exuberance aren’t hindered by Linda Snell lurking in the bushes with a speed gun.

*An aside for a moment…I’m not sure how likely is it that the average person in their mid-20s would have listened to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, let alone heard it. My theory is that this is one of the only songs where an artist does a little ‘shout-out’ to the owner of his management company. I digress but suffice to say that Sheeran’s presence in The Archers has been much like its been out here in listener-land (is that what we call it?): entirely ubiquitous.*

Anyway, the freedom Sheeran yearns for in Castle on the hill might well seem to be representative of Toby’s laddish optimism but in many ways the song itself speaks for Pip’s obvious desire for a less complicated life away from Toby’s constant stream of half-truths lies.

Recently, Sheeran’s man-of-the-people/ boy-next-door has been problematised by both Chloe Stilwell and Laura Snapes as a specific brand of ‘toxic masculinity’. The song Shape of you is singled out as emblematic of the way womens’ bodies are habitually subjected to the male gaze without question. In Ambridge, many of us have felt this kind of ‘grrr-ish’ toward Toby’s bragging about the way he treats women. Further still, it is interesting that the most notably absent member of the Archer family, young Ben, blasted Shape of you as a means of asserting his youthful masculine presence during a who-sleeps-where debacle in Brookfield a few weeks back too.

To finish up though, it is through Lily Pargetter that Sheeran’s music and masculinity operates as the sun for a number of residents in the village and their preferred ditties to orbit around. I can think of at least five (do drop me a line with more!):

1. In the middle of May, David turned up to Lower Loxley to give Lily a driving lesson.

Lily was prompted to talk about music in response to what she terms David’s ‘seriously retro’ music that was already playing in his car. We heard Deep Purple’s Smoke on the water and it was a bit of a shock to start with. I never had David Archer down as a fan of early heavy metal but actually I can well imagine the dad dancing if I really put my mind to it. Interestingly, it’s a song about a casino burning down, so perhaps it’s a nod of the financially perilous things to come at Brookfield?

2. Lily tells David she’s a Sheeran fan and in doing so, positions songs like Castle on the hill in direct opposition to Smoke on the water as far as she’s concerned. Lily is about the here and now and Sheeran is representative of this. In the last week it turns out that her twin brother, Freddie, is a proud retrophile. A hipster in the making perhaps, he tells Johnny that he not only loves the ‘old skool’ sounds of Run DMC but that the acts playing at Loxfest were ‘lost’ on Lily.

3. Lily tells David that for her, ‘music isn’t really a distraction, it helps [her] concentrate…’ and that Sheeran’s latest album, ‘Divide’, is what she listens to as she revises for her English A Level exam. We know that like Sheeran, Lily is popular amongst her peers and so his music is a nod to how Lily enjoys operating as a kind of social glue between people. And so relatedly…

4. She goes on to tell a entirely disinterested David that Sheeran’s brand of 21st century troubadourism has caught Johnny’s attention too but she suspects its more to do with his eternal yearning for the enigmatic Amber than anything else.

This week, after much soul searching, Johnny eventually plucked up the courage to ask Amber to go to the Isle of White festival. Having received a pair of tickets for his birthday Johnny told Freddie, he was particularly excited about seeing rising star Rag’n’Bone man. In terms of both genre and style, Sheeran’s musical offering isn’t a million miles from er…’Rag’…and so Johnny is a clearly fan of young singers who culturally signify the unlikely ‘authentic underdog’ who hits the big time against the odds. Johnny thinks he’s punching above his weight with Amber, so when she agrees to take up the second ticket, might this music suggest that he’s going to win over her heart after all?

5. Finally, I am interested in how Lily’s relationship with Anisha is indirectly heard through her enjoyment of Sheeran’s music.

The singer recently featured on Desert Island Discs, not only revealing the back story to his extraordinary successes but also sharing insight into his dogged determinism and continued ambition.

In a culture that ascribes these kinds of qualities as typically masculine, to hear Lily’s fighting talk about out-doing Anisha at the single wicket was rather refreshing. With various village dramas being played out through the decision to include women in the Ambridge cricket team, a subtle flash of female masculinity was a delight this week. I’m not sure if we can ever claim that Sheeran brings such queerness to the yard, but I’m intrigued how the single wicket goes this year…and that’s a first!

#nowlistening: Baltimore Oriole by Hoagy Carmichael.

Hoagy_Carmichael_-_1947As she tucked into her delicious eggs benedict, Lilian wasn’t just being serenaded by relentless, saccharine compliments from Justin in the tea room on Wednesday night. Continuing this weeks’ ornithological musical theme was Hoagy Carmichael chirping away under the hubbub of the tea room with his ode to a particularly colourful migratory breeding bird, the Baltimore Oriole.

Common to the USA, this little warbler is cousin to the UK’s native blackbird — whose song we regularly hear in the Am Vale — indeed, the same could be said of Fag Ash Lil’s ubiquitous gin-soaked cackles. A little lyric analysis leaves little doubt that this little bird is indeed, representative of Lilian. This is all about her historically flighty love life (Oh how I miss those Tiger and Puss Cat days…) and her current predicament as mistress-turned-homewrecker-turned-significant other of Justin Elliott.

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This version of ‘Baltimore Oriole’ is performed in the key of D minor, a key described by Schubert as possessing ‘melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood’. Indeed, while co-writer Paul Webster’s lyrics seem to be voiced as Justin‘s arrogant desire to ‘rescue’ Lilian by making their relationship official, the musical environment of D minor keeps our focus on Lilian’s take on how the relationship is developing and changing.

images.jpegAs an aside, the music functions away from the Justilian connection too with the
sombre, yet sashaying ditty cutting across other themes and narratives currently at play in the village. Flurries from the flute section are particularly noticeable in this arrangement, a tried and tested orchestration technique to evoke birdsong and a neat touch to introduce avid twitcher Robert Snell into the scene just as Carmichael sings the word ‘bird’. This is either a result of cleverly synchronised editing or serendipitous timing but either way it’s not just any bird, but a ‘two-timing jay bird’ and so our attention is brought back to the Bellamy-Elliott tangle.

p04j8850.jpgThese tensions are emphasised again at 2mins 19secs when the lyric : ‘…to make a lonely man happy’ (in fact this is the most discernible lyric in the whole scene) when Justin asks Lilian out for a post-brunch promenade around the lake. But Lilian calls the activity into question, reiterating her ongoing rejection of domesticity and asserting her delight in the wildness of their previously unconventional affair. Ultimately ‘Baltimore Oriole’ functions as a bold and empowered statement for Lilian who continues to demand free-spirited autonomy from her own nest.


download.jpegThere are pleasing intertextual resonances with the songs’ history too: Hoagy
Carmichael performed ‘Baltimore Oriole’ in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944), a film that first brought together Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Baccall who immediately embarked on their own passionate affair. Their on-screen chemistry is immortalised in the ‘whistle’ scene where Baccall asserts a specific brand of smoky-voiced, powerful femininity over Bogart. While Fag Ash might not have the sultry delivery of Bacall, the ‘Baltimore Oriole’ helps in demonstrating Lilian’s desire to continue her bold, bohemian chitter-chatter over and around Justin.

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‘You know how to whistle don’t you Justin?….’

#notlistening: flibbertigibbet!

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A most unusual and wonderful word set the Ambridge-related twittersphere ablaze this week. No sooner had Peggy Woolley whipped out her second-best (*gasp*) china , she directed her deep disappointment at daughter Lilian for being, a ‘flibbertigibbet’. Peggy must’ve been the last to hear about Lilian and Justin’s raucous ‘going’s-on’ and so, Peggy was cross. In response, gin-soaked Lil’ was a little crestfallen and very hungover and so, quietly took her mother’s admonishment with a solemnity that she is rarely required to lean on.

Tomorrow morning, scriptwriter @keridavies goes on the Today programme to talk about ‘flibbertigibbet’. Of course he is. Brilliant. But among us mere mortals there have been some wonderful observations of the use of the word, not least @sallyannely ’s during this week’s tweetalong that the word would probably have trended if we had known how to spell it! Others have written beautifully on this scene (and beyond) but what I’d like to suggest is that Peggy’s use of the word functions as a musical spoiler of what lies ahead; she tells us that Lilian will get her man and, yet she does so without any music actually underscoring the scene.

‘A flibbertigibbet, a willo-the-wisp, a clown…’maria.jpg

The joy of Ambridge FM is that we get to learn about amazing music through the strangely addictive mundanity of The Archers. But in this moment, like many others, I recalled The Sound Of Music as the most memorable use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ and so the song played away in my background to the rest of the scene. Such is the power of these intertextual moments that a word like ‘flibbertigibbet’ prods the action with its unusualness, takes us elsewhere in that second and encourages us to sing along. Background music becomes superfluous as we all become Ambridge FM. Altogether now…

How do we solve a problem like Lilian Bellamy?

SOM how do you solveA process of recasting, where Lilian becomes Maria, and Peggy takes on the all-seeing surveilling eye of Mother Abbess. With this in mind then, of course Fag Ash would get her man – because big-boss Justin Elliot ends up being coded as Captain Von Trapp! Given Lilian’s disquiet on Justin’s decision to choose her over Miranda, I wonder if he’ll be out telling stories about Edelweiss any time soon?..

#nowlistening: earwigging at Jennifer’s party

There seems to be a tendency of late for Archers scriptwriters to turn to crooners for underscoring. Perhaps it’s the way the silky vocal timbre sits beneath the action? In the not-quite-thirteen minutes of Jenny Darling’s ‘Land’ themed party on Friday night (3rd March), crooners and their jazz-inflected cousins took to the background once again and all washed down with lashings of Sancerre broccoli.

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After a smatter of high energy scat singing, followed by a touch of Glenn Miller-esque saxophone schmaltz, it’s Nat King Cole’s matter-of-fact reflection ‘It’s all in the game’ that wafts through Home Farm

For trivia fans, this might well be the only song to accompany a scene in the Archers that’s been written by a Vice-President of the United States of America. Charles G. Dawes’ ‘Melody in A major’ was penned in 1911, and it wasn’t until 1951 that songwriter Carl Sigman added lyrics, later becoming a multi-million selling hit in 1958 for Tommy Edwards.

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Charles Dawes. Let’s hope Mike Pence follows suit. No?

I digress.

At a rudimentary level, this song resonates with the various ‘games’ currently being played in Ambridge at present, not least Jim amusing himself at Jenny Darling’s expense when she claims his translation of the party theme as her own work. That a large section in the middle of the song is given over to a small string orchestra to take the tune is useful for the practicalities of radio drama; while the melody sometimes prods at the drama, it is not as distracting as lyrical interest can be. Mostly though, Cole’s crooning of  lyrics like ‘…your future’s looking dim’, seem to operate as a warning for our beloved Lilian. She is, of course, comically blasé about it, invoking both Rita Hayworth and another musical text, Richard Strauss’ Salomé, as she teases Jennifer:

‘I’ll use the opposite corner for my dance of the seven veils!’ 

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DAHHHLINNNG!

This imaginary striptease moves us away from Cole’s smooth crooning and toward increased rhythmic intensity, including Tommy Dorsey’s swooning trombone version of ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ and Tom Jones and Jools Holland grooving their way through Moon Mullican’s ‘I’ll sail my ship alone’. Mullican’s song underscores earring-gate, the intimate moment that reveals the affair once and for all to Miranda. Reinforced by Jones’ warbling, the lyrical inference is that one of these three will be navigating the seas independently forward from here.

What happens next to the always-already doomed relationship Lilian and Justin is at the poetic heart of Anita O’Day’s ‘Stella by starlight’, which concludes the episode. If Tom Jones brought the clang of the penny dropping then Anita O’Day brings the ‘oh blimey…this doesn’t look good’ to the yard.

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As Miranda and Justin leave the party, leaving Lilian under the false impression that the illicit romance remains hidden, O’Day’s song persona sings on behalf of Lilian of a ‘nook where two lovers hide’.  

Some attribute O’Day’s distinctive vocal style, with its vibrato-free tone and short phrases, to a botched tonsillectomy; others have mused that her concentration on rhythm over melody is why she is less well known than her contemporaries, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. But the connection runs outside the confines of the song too. Notwithstanding O’Day’s (successful) battle with drug addiction, she has a similar brand of joie de vivre as Lilian; this ‘the jezebel of jazz’ is the ideal musical counterpart to Lil’s geriatric-but-persistent sexuality.

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Furthermore, the song itself has its own intertextual interest to add intrigue. Like ‘It’s all in the game’, there is a time-lapse between the creation of music and lyrics; the former was composed in 1944 to underscore the film, The Uninvited, and the lyrics were added later in 1946 by Ned Washington. The inclusion in this scene sees the music return to its primary use as supporting drama.

The Uninvited tells a supernatural tale of ghostly hauntings, so might it leave clues as to what’s up next in Ambridge? Will Miranda surreptitiously linger in the shadows to definitively catch Lilian and Justin in the act? Or does all this talk of speed limits and fast cars in the village point toward a very literal ghost on the horizon?

 

P.S. A caveat and confession: as much as I’d love to have analysed all 7 pieces I didn’t have the space here and as much as I’ve tried, I can’t identify all the tracks that are used in this episode. Please do drop me an email or a tweet if you can shed any light!