London, March 23: The long-running BBC Radio 4 soap, The Archers, set in the fictional village of Ambridge, has just announced that it is to have an Indian priest.
This was communicated to listeners in the episode aired last Sunday, when two long-time village residents, Aunty Peggy and Jill Archer, were making a light conversation.
Peggy announced she knew about the imminent arrival of Suresh Matai, who, she said “sounds like an interesting man. He is a Ph.D student in his 50s, a widower with two grown-up children”.
He is coming at the right time, she continued, just in time for Easter services. Ambridge has been bereft since its Vicar, a woman, Janet, left the parish sometime after Christmas.
The Archers, which has been running for over 50 years, is an interesting soap, epitomising life in Middle England, focussing mostly on the farming community and the changing rural environment. It is broadcast for 10 minutes, six days a week, with an Omnibus edition on Sundays.
Dedicated followers get upset when the BBC plays around with the schedule times to accommodate cricket commentaries.
When the first Asian arrived in the village, over 10 years ago, it had made national news headlines. She was a solicitor, Usha Gupta (originally played by Sudha Bhuchar, and now by Souad Faress). The character was modelled on Kamlesh Bahl (later to become chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission), and was unconventional in her habits.
Her parents had been uneasy about her move from Wolverhampton to Ambridge.
Today, Gupta is happily settled at Blossom Hill Cottage and works in Felpersham for the firm Jefferson Crabtree. She has recently been dating an English barrister, Adrian Manderson, and enjoys salsa dancing on her nights off.
Occasionally, her elder brother, accountant Shiv Gupta (played by Shiv Grewal), and aunt Satya Khanna (Jamila Massey) drop in, especially at Diwali and other festivals.
Matai is the fourth Asian to join this hallowed institution. He makes his first appearance in the episode to be aired on March 31 and is supposed to be there on a “month’s secondment over Easter from the Church of South India, near Bangalore”, says the BBC.
Ajay Chhabra, a 33-year-old seasoned theatre actor, who plays Reverend Matai, said: “He is a very friendly character and the villagers take him under their wing.”
In the first episode, he will be heard having tea and being shown around the village.
The character has been devised by the soap’s religious adviser, Jeremy Martineau, and is supposed to have been to England before to study in London, but has never been to the countryside.
Church House, which represents the Church of England clergy, point out that there are around 200 ethnic minority clergy serving at parishes all over England. The most senior of that is the Pakistani-born Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali Bishop of Rochester.
Matai is “overjoyed to be in a village”, said Chhabra. “He’s a modern man from a modern city, Bangalore. He is going to enlighten the villagers on the world of technology.”