Farewell to Peggy from The Archers – and a lifetime of stoicism and impeccable manners

·4 min read
June Spencer records some of the earliest episodes of the radio-drama
June Spencer records some of the earliest episodes of the radio-drama

Let me begin with a confession. I’ve never warmed to Peggy Woolley. Back when I started listening as a schoolgirl (weird yes, but I was) she’d already been on The Archers for two decades and to me seemed too old, too posh and too humourless to be in the least bit interesting.

Forty years on, she really is ancient and those terribly, terribly Brief Encounter vowels haven’t altered one jot. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh. But now that actress June Spencer, 103, is bowing out after 71 years, I must admit that I will miss Ambridge’s purse-lipped matriarch.

Peggy’s storyline has - literally - lasted the best part of a lifetime and has presented her with many a challenge which she has always met with dignified stoicism. Her first husband, Jack Archer, was ravaged by alcoholism and died.

After finding happiness again, with second husband Jack Woolley, he developed Alzheimer’s in 2003. The slow burn course of his dementia and the harrowing effect it had on Peggy lasted a full 11 years and was widely applauded for its sensitivity and verisimilitude.

Having listened throughout, it’s fair to say age has definitely mellowed me as a listener if not her as a character. Peggy is a fastidious remnant of an older, more orderly generation, a stickler for etiquette who refuses to suffer fools gladly yet (in a masterstroke of genius!) overlooks the tooth-and-claw foibles of her heroically aggressive cat, Hilda Ogden.

June Spencer has voiced The Archers’ Peggy Woolley for over 70 years - Andrew Crowley
June Spencer has voiced The Archers’ Peggy Woolley for over 70 years - Andrew Crowley

The animal, inherited from Peggy’s hairdresser, the fabulously-named Fabrice, is named after another soap queen, Coronation Street’s gossip and resident busybody played from 1964 to 1987 by Jean Alexander. It seemed like she’d been on our screens, on the street, forever but therein lies the unique power and status of a long-running character.

Even if you don’t watch every episode or just tune in occasionally by accident, there’s a peculiar comfort in seeing a familiar face. The producers are banking that it could, in fact, be enough to draw you back in. Often it is.

Strong women have always been at the heart of soaps. They are the champions of the community; moral compasses in housecoats who stand their ground, defend their values and support their invariably feckless menfolk. By turns lambasting and lionising their wayward kids, right into adulthood and well into middle age, they link past and present and embody tradition – most especially at times of turbulence and change. Think Sharon Watts and Kathy Beale who have been in EastEnders on and off since the show’s inception in 1985. You might not love them, or even like them much, but boy do you respect them.

Spencer (centre, right) with the cast of The Archers ahead of recording the show’s 50th anniversary episode in 2001 - PA
Spencer (centre, right) with the cast of The Archers ahead of recording the show’s 50th anniversary episode in 2001 - PA

For the menfolk, that respect is harder to earn. Think of that other long-running character, Ken Barlow (aka William Roache), a Coronation Street resident for the past 60 years. His intellectual affectations belied his serial philandering and unshakeable self interest. Yet – to Roache’s well-documented exasperation - he was forever lampooned as the dullest man in Weatherfield.

It’s all in the eye of the proverbial beholder, but either way there’s a great deal of mileage to be had from simply staying the course; when Ken tied the knot with Deirdre the first time in 1981, it attracted more viewers than Charles and Diana’s wedding. A fluke? Nope. When they got married for the second time in 2005, 13 million people watched. Coincidentally, Charles got hitched to Camilla Parker Bowles the next day to a TV audience of nine million.

Spencer, pictured in 2005, with The Archers co-star Norman Painting - Stephen Lock Retained
Spencer, pictured in 2005, with The Archers co-star Norman Painting - Stephen Lock Retained

Not technically Lèse-majesté but a salutary reminder that soaps, like royal dynasties rely not just on drama but legacy, succession planning and a sense of continuity.

And so as The Archers’ grande dame departs, another, equally esteemed character will surely take over Peggy’s crown, so gradually that at first we will barely notice. Jill Archer seems a shoo-in, being kind and empathetic but no pushover; the reassuring constant every family treasures and every soap opera needs.