I am not a regular listener to "The Archers" on BBC Radio 4 but have dipped into it at odd times over the years. Somehow I have managed to hear one or two of the more dramatic episodes this way. This weekend I got the death of Phil Archer and it was every bit as memorable as that of Doris Archer some thirty years ago. There I seem to recall the news of the death being taken to the church where Evensong was in progress so that the episode ended not to the usual tumpty tumpty tumpty theme but instead to the strains of "The Day thou gavest, Lord is ended"coming from the church. I suspect one would have had to have had a heart of stone not to have roared with laughter!
Fast forward thirty years to the death of Phil and his exit was also marked with music- a recording he had evidently been listening to when Jill, his wife, entered to find him dead. The music was from Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius"- precisely the instrumental introduction following the death of Gerontius and just before he sings "I went to sleep and now I am refreshed" and prior to meeting his Guardian Angel who will escort him into God's presence before bidding him farewell at the entrance to Purgatory.
One thing that has never ceased to amaze me about "The Archers" set, as it is, in the countryside of the English Midlands, is its take on the religious and cultural life of the region and, in particular the fact tha,t while the Church of England features prominently, the Catholic church simply doesn't seem to exist. There is a Hindu solicitor who celebrates Diwali- and I wonder how many of those does one encounter in the rural midlands(!)- but I have yet to encounter a Catholic character. How very different from the region I knew in my youth! Rather I suspect we hear a coutryside imagined in Birmingham.
It was in Birmingham, of course, that Newman originally wrote his poem and it was in Birmingham that Elgar had the first performance of "Gerontius"- a disaster, by all accounts. "It stinks of incense!" Sir Charles Villiers Stanford declared- which was a quaint way of expressing antipathy to "popery". So my surprise at hearing of Phil Archer's departure to the strains of "Gerontius" may be imagined. Who knows? Perhaps in time it may be rumoured that he, like another (but real) midlander four hundred and forty-six years earlier, "dyed a papist"!
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