Archers patriarch Norman Painting dies

Actor who played Phil Archer still working in September, despite heart condition which compounded fight against bladder cancer
Obituary: Norman Painting

Norman Painting, the mainstay of the rural radio soap opera The Archers for 60 years, has died aged 85.

First hired by BBC radio in 1950 for a trial of what was expected to be a short-lived story of Midlands farming folk, Painting was still in action as Ambridge's patriarch, Phil Archer, until last month, even as a heart condition compounded his fight against bladder cancer .

Conservative and downbeat compared with dodgy geezers such as Nelson Gabriel or more colourful families such as the Pargetters, Painting's Archer was a chunk of Olde England around which the series revolved. This was partly the actor's own doing, as the author of 1,198 Archers scripts as well as a tireless supporter of the programme's curious, fact and fiction-mixing roadshows.

Painting was skilled at portraying a sometimes tedious paterfamilias, sighing over his large family's ups and downs and offering them sherry or Sunday lunch as a cure-all with his well-suited radio wife, Jill. But he came to the series from a lively and distinguished academic background: a student role as King Lear in Birmingham that is still remembered, followed by a research scholarship at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he taught drama.

The long, calm afternoons at Brookfield farm had a remarkable prelude in a second Lear at Oxford, in which his fellow players included the politician Shirley Williams, John Schlesinger, later to become a film director, the future broadcaster Robert Robinson and the future head of British Rail Peter Parker. Jack May, who was to play Nelson Gabriel, was also in the cast, and went with Painting to pitch for a new BBC series.

Painting was cast as Phil, then the handsome young son of Dan and Doris Archer who farmed Ambridge's fertile acreage, and he was soon given a beautiful wife, Grace, played by Ysanne Churchman. Their supreme (but for Grace, final) moment came in 1955 after a BBC executive named H Rooney Pelletier wrote to his superiors: "The more I think about it, the more I believe that a death of a violent kind in The Archers, timed if possible to diminish interest in the opening of commercial television in London, is a good idea."

Grace was duly incinerated in a barn; ratings and newspaper headlines walloped ITV; and Painting in effect got life membership of The Archers (Churchman too, in a sense: she returned to play five other parts over the years). His character still has an appearance to come. Recorded on Tuesday, Phil will appear gently on Sunday 22 November, surrounded by grandchildren and getting ready for Christmas.

The series' editor, Vanessa Whitburn, said: "Norman was a consummate professional. Under his sure hand, Phil graduated seamlessly from young romantic hero to farmer, father and grandfather. He always wanted to remain working on The Archers until he died – and I am delighted and proud that he achieved his wish."

Outside the studio, Painting, who was born in Leamington Spa, was a dedicated worker for charities and good causes including Birmingham Cathedral, Age Concern in Warwickshire and the Tree Council. He secured the site for the Shakespeare Tree Garden in Stratford-upon-Avon, raised huge sums for the Red Cross, distressed farmers and phobia victims and was appointed OBE in 1975.

Many other awards came his way and he wrote bestselling books about The Archers, but one distinction gave him special pleasure. No one in the world has played a soap opera character without a break for so long, and no one looks likely to.


Martin Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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