The Archers: why June Spencer was the Queen of Ambridge

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Indulge me: think not of The Archers as the annoying Radio 4 soap you switch off at the very hint of its aggressively cheerful theme tune, or even as the addictive anchor to your week.

Consider it, rather, as an experimental long-form drama, one that unfurls at the same heartbeat pace as our own lives. The Archers has been running since New Year’s Day, 1951. It is the longest-running soap opera in the world. Characters – and actors – are born, mature, age, and die in it, at the same pace as listeners’ own lives.

It really matters, then, that June Spencer (hale, hearty and sharp as a pin at 103 years old) is stepping down from the programme. She appeared in that very first episode and, with a short break in the 1950s when she left to look after her children, has been in it ever since.

She, above any other current Archers actor or character, symbolises those last, loosening ties with the programme’s origins. She also, in her way, represents a fading connection with an England in which television was still a dream for most families and radio was the great medium. One thinks – inevitably, if rather fancifully – of the Queen. Well, there it is: it’s partly Spencer’s regally coiffed hair, and partly the fact that she has the marvellously clipped voice of someone who trained in weekly rep during the war.

Beyond doubt, she is the Queen of the Archers.

Not that it was a particularly momentous start: Spencer found out she’d been cast in the new programme only when a colleague mentioned it to her in the canteen queue at the BBC’s Birmingham studios. (She was part of the Beeb’s regional radio drama repertory company at the time.)

In that first episode, the Peggy Archer listeners encountered was a young, cockney incomer (her accent has long since softened), who’d met her husband, Jack, when she was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the war.

The Archers was made in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and designed to dispense farming advice to its listeners while also educating townies about the countryside. Her outsider status meant she could ask all the dumb questions and get quite lengthy technical replies from the chaps. Her marriage to Jack, who drank, was already rocky; and so it would continue.

She also doubled another couple of characters: a Scottish maid and an Irish baker’s assistant called Rita Flynn, who tried to lead Phil Archer astray. She once had to play two of her characters in a single scene, meaning a sharp about-face on accents.

That she could take in her stride: part of the job was to be flexible and deadly accurate. “Practically everything was live,” as she told me when I interviewed her in 2020.

“When it came to The Archers, though, we were recording on very large discs. We would rehearse scene by scene, then record the whole episode in one go. If anyone made a mistake they’d be very unpopular – you’d have to go right back to the beginning and re-record the whole thing again. That didn’t happen very often because we were used to going on air live. There was practically no television so we had it all our own way. There was lots of lovely work.”

The first editor of The Archers, Godfrey Baseley, wanted the listeners to feel as if they were listening in to real life, Spencer told me. “When we first met, he said: ‘It’s not a drama programme – it’s real life, overheard.’ For so many years the listeners believed it absolutely – whatever we did was real to them.”

The cast attended public events in character, and when listeners wrote to them, they replied in character. A plotline in 1966 involved Peggy’s daughter, Jennifer, having her son Adam out of wedlock, a closely guarded secret to all but a handful of characters. Spencer recalled a listener writing to her, saying: “‘Dear Mrs Archer – your daughter is going to have a baby, and only three people know. Why don’t you listen to the programme?’”

Peggy’s problematic, alcoholic husband, Jack, did the decent thing in the end: he died, in a Scottish sanatorium, in 1972. Peggy by this time had long owned the Bull, the village pub, but in 1974 she also took a job as the PA to a Brummie entrepreneur, Jack Woolley, owner of Grey Gables. It took him till 1991 to persuade her to marry him and sweep her away in his chauffeur-driven Bentley. He in turn died, gradually and touchingly, from Alzheimer’s, in 2014. Peggy became the matriarch of the Archers – a fully human character, inconsistent and flawed, capable of great thoughtlessness, but at times rising to her very best, magnificent, loyal self.

In what we now know was her final scene, broadcast last week, we heard her cradling her newborn twin great-granddaughters – a handover of the generations, if you like. And so time moves us, and The Archers, inexorably forwards, into the unknown future.