At least when the end comes for Peggy Woolley – the redoubtable matriarch of The Archers – it looks like it won’t be too painful. I very much doubt there will be an accident on the Ambridge bypass, a charging bull, a tractor toppling on top of her or indeed – the fate chosen for me 11 years ago – a spectacular fall from a roof.
My much-loved former colleague June Spencer – who, unbelievably, is now 103-years-old – has decided it is time for her character, Peggy, to bow out of the Radio 4 series after first debuting in 1950. She had been asking the scriptwriters for a while to give her an exit, but they kept coming back with yet more episodes. Now that they’ve come to terms with it, there is talk of Peggy simply being packed off to The Laurels, the fictional care home in Ambridge, and that will be the last we hear of her.
Of course, her character will be terribly missed – there is a peculiar intimacy that grows between The Archers “family” and their listeners that intensifies over time. And while I know it’s what June wants, I know, too, something of what she will be going through. It was a real wrench for me to say goodbye to my own character, Nigel Pargetter.
I was a mere whippersnapper of 60 – I’d done just 28 years in the series – when I met my end, but a bond develops between player and part that goes well beyond the attachment to a regular paycheque. The character starts to feel like kith and kin. It’s funny how protective actors become to their parts in long-running dramas. If anyone says a word against my beloved Nigel, even now I find myself defending him robustly.
The film The Killing of Sister George, starring Beryl Reid as a soap actor called June Buckridge, got across something of the sense of loss when those parts are taken from us. Buckridge couldn’t come to terms with her homely character being written out of a long-running show. I had actually joked to fellow cast members before recording Nigel’s last moments that I’d “do a Sister George” and yell out, after my initial blood-curdling scream: “Oh no, don’t worry, I’ve managed to grab hold of the ledge, I think I’ll be fine …”
I need hardly add that, on the day, I died as I was expected to: there’s a professionalism on that series that nothing ever diminishes and that June absolutely epitomised.
God and the scriptwriters willing, there is of course no reason why age – even advanced old age – should be a bar to any actor working in radio until their dying days, and The Archers was truly one of those jobs that you could happily stay in for ever. An actor who is around 100-years-old appearing in a drama is not without precedent. Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was 100 when she made her final appearance in a teleplay of the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Master Blackmailer.
On radio, the physical exertion is not great. In my days on the show, we would sit in a huddle with the scripts on our laps when we recorded. The pandemic and technological advances have made it perfectly normal for actors to now literally phone in their parts from home. So you can see why actors stay on for as long as they do, which is part of what makes The Archers so credible and absorbing for its devoted listeners.
Although I welcomed the regular income from the show, I always tried hard to keep playing other characters in film and on television. I was too restless to play just one role, and as an actor I never wanted to live and die with Nigel.
After his fall, I had no trouble finding other roles. But June, who has been a mainstay on the series for so long, has nothing more to prove. I recall her kind and generous note to me when I left The Archers family and I can only wish her the very best now that she, too, is leaving. She should be very proud of how she played the part, as well as her unfailing politeness and good humour to so many colleagues over so many years. June, you will always be part of the family, and I wish you a long and happy retirement. But knowing how uniquely strong and resilient you are, too, I do think you’re going at least 10 years too early.
Graham Seed is an actor and is appearing in Bloody Difficult Women at the Edinburgh fringe.