'The most heartfelt part I have ever played'

Actress June Spencer tells Amelia Hill she is reliving the experience of her own husband's ordeal as the radio serial deals with the tragedy of Alzheimer's

When listening to the most harrowing scenes detailing tycoon Jack Woolley's slow descent into Alzheimer's, June Spencer, who plays his wife on Radio 4's The Archers, often finds herself in tears.

'I tell myself it is ridiculous - that it's only acting and my own acting at that - but it is so terribly close to the bone,' said 86-year-old June, better known as Peggy Woolley. 'A scene I found particularly hard to bear recently was one in which Peggy was telling a distressed Jack they were both in this together and she would never leave him. It brought back a lot of memories for me.'

It is four years since June's real husband, Roger Brocksom, died of a stroke at 82, having suffered from dementia for 10 years. 'It was terribly sad and incredibly difficult when Roger died: we had been married for 59 years and I had no idea what life would be like without him. But I suppose it was lucky that I was spared the most awful time with Alzheimer's because Roger died before I had to really worry about how I would manage to look after him when I was 81 and still travelling between Surrey and Birmingham three times a month to record The Archers.'

At the start of this year, June was told she was going to have to revisit her experiences and memories in a plot line during which her radio husband, played by 80-year-old Arnold Peters, develops dementia and gradually slips into the same mire of confusion and upset.

'I was unprepared when Vanessa [Whitburn, The Archers' editor] decided that Jack would develop the same illness as Roger, but my immediate thought was that it was both a marvellous acting opportunity for me as well as a fantastic way of publicising the illness,' she said. 'It didn't occur to me until afterwards to consider how I would cope with acting scenes and portraying emotions that were so closely aligned to my own life.'

When reading the script in the BBC studio, June said, she can switch off her emotions - although she admits that has become increasingly difficult in the past few week, as Jack's illness has reached almost exactly the same point as Roger's had in the weeks before he died.

'When I am working, I am not me any more; I'm Peggy,' she said. 'Generally, this enables me to remain completely calm and professional no matter how close to the bone the scenes are but when we play the recordings back at the end of the session and listen to them together, I can find it hard to bear.'

The Archers, the longest-running soap on Radio 4, is again gripping the nation, thanks to Emma Grundy's admission last week that the son she gave birth to after her marriage to Will was in fact conceived in a night of passion with Ed, her husband's brother, during her own hen party. The tension of the plot is only matched by events unfolding on the other side of the fictional village of Ambridge as Hazel, the appalling daughter of Jack Woolley, steadily blackmails Peggy over her inheritance.

When introducing the Alzheimer's strand to the plot last year, Whitburn was fully aware of the resonance it would have for June, and suggested that before the script was written the actor should meet the producers and writers to tell them her own story. 'We are all very much of a big family in The Archers,' said June. 'We know all about each other's families and our problems, and Vanessa was very sensitive when she told her about her plans.'

So June found herself standing in front of a roomful of scriptwriters and producers, recounting the tale of how Roger began suffering from dementia around the time of their golden wedding anniversary, although it took some time for his condition to be diagnosed.

'A lot of different symptoms suddenly slipped into place,' she said. 'Roger had begun to lose all his initiative and become unable to decide anything for himself. He also wanted me to be there all the time, and although he fortunately didn't become aggressive, as some Alzheimer's sufferers do, he was rather rude occasionally to other people and upset some very close friends in the process.'

She explained to the enthralled group of scriptwriters how Roger, a structural engineer and company director with a practical mind and jokey manner, was reduced to an invalid with no memories except of his war service in Burma. 'We had no shared memories at all, not even of our children,' she said. 'It was the saddest thing and made me feel terribly alone, but he never forgot who I was and so we simply had to live in the present, for the moment as it was happening.' June - the only member of The Archers except Norman Painting, who plays Phil Archer, to have been in the pilot episode of the soap in 1950 - went on to talk of the anxiety she suffered in the months leading to her husband's death.

'It was hardest when I had to leave Roger at our Surrey home to travel to Birmingham to record The Archers,' she remembered. 'I would leave him notes around our home written in big, clear letters on the back of old Archers scripts, reminding him to eat and where to find the food.'

When she finished talking to the room of scriptwriters, June was given a round of applause. 'In a way, it was a form of catharsis to tell my story to so many people in so much detail,' she said. 'I found myself recounting details and stories I hadn't thought of for years.'

June's experiences so impressed the writers that they were were woven into the plot now unfolding. Jack Woolley has been put on anti-Alzheimer's medication, as Roger was, and is becoming increasingly unwilling to let Peggy out of his sight.

'There is another upside of acting a part so closely based on my own life,' said June Spencer. 'I feel all that old affection and caring we shared come flooding back. It's nice to feel that again.'

But it is not only June for whom the plot has resonances in real life: Arnold Peters, who plays Jack, not only knew Roger as a friend but has his own close experience with the disease, having seen his own brother-in-law die of Alzheimer's.

The fact that both Arnold and June have first-hand experiences with Alzheimer's is not surprising: one in 20 people over 60, and a fifth over the age of 80, have the disease.

But the coincidence hardened June's resolve to tackle the part of Peggy as realistically as possible: 'I see it as a perfect opportunity to ensure that the disease is talked about frequently and loudly,' said June, who was asked earlier this month to be patron of the Alzheimer's Research Trust.

'There is no doubt that I play the character of Peggy from the heart,' she added. 'In fact, it would be fair to say this is the most heartfelt part I have ever played.'

Read on ...


As well as funding research, the Alzheimer's Research Trust provides information on the disease, related dementias and the drugs currently available.


The Alzheimer's Society is the UK's leading care and research body for people with dementia.


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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