The Archers' June Spencer on turning 100: 'If I close my eyes I can be any age'

She started out on three guineas a week and ended up one of radio’s most loved voices – not to mention a dead ringer for another grande dame

With a week to go to her 100th birthday, the cards are flooding into June Spencer’s immaculate Surrey bungalow. The Archers’ scriptwriters have given her their own gift: a top secret plot bombshell, to be detonated on her birthday this Friday, which will push the young whippersnapper Peggy Woolley (yet to turn 95) to the forefront of the serial once again.

It means a heavier than usual workload for Spencer, who gestures gamely towards a pile of scripts waiting to be marked up and rehearsed. Having played Peggy since 1951 – apart from a brief career break to settle in her two children – she knows the character better than anyone, so is she allowed to make tweaks? “I read them aloud so I’m aware of any word that doesn’t ring true. Sometimes if it gets a bit grandiose I change it,” she says.

Those occasional grandiosities are the result of scriptwriters who were not even born when Peggy made her entrance, and who are therefore not always aware of the social nuances of her background, she explains. “I think they see her as an extremely rich socialite, but she arrived in Ambridge as a Londoner. She was more or less a cockney, a town girl who needed to have everything explained to her.” In other words (which posh Peggy would not appreciate being spoken aloud), she was a handy device for a programme conceived as a way of giving information to farmers who needed to keep up with a rapidly modernising agriculture in order to feed the growing British population after the second world war. “We were told it was not a drama: it was real life overheard. We were virtually fake actualities,” jokes Spencer.

The beginning … in 1951, June Spencer as Peggy Archer and Denis Folwell as her husband Jack.
The beginning … in 1951, June Spencer as Peggy Archer and Denis Folwell as her husband Jack. Photograph: BBC/The Archers

As the wife of Jack Archer, Peggy became landlady of the local pub, the Bull, surviving an after-hours drinking bust, a breach of the peace rap and a crooked manager after her alcoholic husband was carted off to rehab in Scotland from which he never returned. “She emerged as a very overworked and tired girl with a feckless husband,” says Spencer. In the five-part pilot series she was a young mother with two children and another on the way, so by the time the serial proper began on New Year’s Day 1951, it was almost time for the baby to be born. That baby was Tony Archer, now the patriarch of Bridge farm. “I was able to tell him that he was a mistake,” says Spencer, “because there was a scene right at the start where Peggy said rather tearfully to Doris [Archer]: ‘It just happened’.”

Initially, Spencer doubled as Peggy and a flighty Irish baker’s assistant called Rita, briefly adding a Scottish maid to her repertoire, which in one episode involved introducing herself into a room in two different accents. Like Peggy, she betrays little of her origins. She is poised and elegant, with more than a passing resemblance to the Queen (“Yes,” she sighs, “people do say I look like her, particularly abroad”). She grew up a beloved only child in Nottingham, where her father travelled around on a bicycle as a salesman for a biscuit company. She caught the entertaining bug early, and when the “talkies” began, started to speak with an American accent, alarming her parents who sent her off for elocution lessons with a woman who introduced her to poetry and Shakespeare. “She was also the producer of the very busy amateur dramatic theatre in Nottingham and when I was about 15 she said, ‘I think you might like to join the society to get some experience.’”

She was on holiday in Eastbourne with her mother when the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and recalls her father driving across country to take them home “because the trains were full of little evacuees”. On her 21st birthday the Nazis marched into Paris. She had made herself a dress for a party in a local hall. “There were 42 of my friends there, including all my boyfriends, and so I danced with each of them in turn,” she recalled in her autobiography, published in 2010. “I knew it was probably the last time we should all be together as they would soon be joining the forces.”

One of her guests was “a fair-haired blue-eyed boy with a cheeky grin” called Roger Brocksom, who “always seemed to be around”. He was serving in Northern Ireland when the couple married in 1942, but a few months later was posted to India and Burma. “I simply went on living with my parents. It was three years and four months before we saw each other again,” she wrote. “By then he was a major and my life had completely changed.”

Her first big break came when the local repertory theatre was casting around for someone to play a 12-year-old. Reluctantly, because she was well into her 20s, the theatre manager entrusted the role to her, rewarding her success with a contract to play in weekly rep, two shows a day, for three guineas a week. It was to be the first of many child roles for Spencer, who says: “Even today if I just close my eyes I can be any age I’ve ever been. I know the feel of it, the atmosphere.”

The arrangement broke down after she demanded a pay rise for taking the title role in a Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland and her boss made the mistake of suggesting that she should be grateful for being spared war work. “I drew myself up to my full 63 and a half inches and said ‘I’d rather fill shells than work for you’.” She marched off to the labour exchange and landed a day job as a “hello girl”, staffing the telephone switchboards, while volunteering in morale-raising shows for the forces in her spare time. “We had a repertoire of two plays and away we would go in a cranky old bus with our scenery stashed down the centre aisle.”

June Spencer as a rep actor with the BBC Midland Home Service in 1946.
June Spencer as a rep actor with the BBC Midland Home Service in 1946. Photograph: BBC

In 1943, she passed an audition for the BBC’s Midland region and became a stalwart of the radio repertory company, knocking around with several of the actors who would go on to join her in The Archers. A children’s radio pantomime introduced her to the two men who would play Peggy’s second husband, the entrepreneurial Brummie Jack Woolley: Philip Garston-Jones (who played Woolley from 1962 to 1980) was the dame, while Arnold Peters (1980 to Jack’s death in 2014) doubled as the hero and villain of the piece. “I, of course, played the princess.”

Her storyline with Peters was to prove one of the most taxing of her career after Jack Woolley developed Alzheimer’s. Spencer’s own husband, Roger, had recently died after suffering from the disease. “They asked both of us if we were happy to take it on and we said yes. It opened up a whole new life for me because the Alzheimer’s Society approved and invited me to speak.” She went on to become a patron of Alzheimer’s Research UK, “because I felt it was something that needed to be brought into the open”.

In the end, though, Jack Woolley outlived the actor who had played him for so long that Spencer suggested it was time to kill him off. Her final scene was a long monologue where she went through all the pictures of their life together. Was it hard to do? “You do feel a certain sadness,” she says, but just as Peggy has outlived most of her generation, Spencer has had to come to terms with the deaths of many of her fellow cast members (most recently her good friend Edward Kelsey, who played Joe Grundy). Besides, she says briskly, Jack’s demise wasn’t as affecting as the day Peggy helped the vet to euthanise one of her cats on air. “I love cats, you see, and going through all the stages of putting one to sleep made me feel as if I’d really done it.”

Taxing … Spencer with second radio husband Jack Woolley (Arnold Peters); the character’s decline through Alzheimer’s disease was praised for its sensitivity.
Taxing … Spencer with second radio husband Jack Woolley (Arnold Peters); the character’s decline through Alzheimer’s disease was praised for its sensitivity. Photograph: BBC/The Archers

She doesn’t have a pet in England because she’s away so much, but she and her husband acquired a family of feral cats at their longstanding holiday home on the Spanish island of Menorca, where she still goes in breaks from recording. Which brings us to Hilda, the monster moggie who has recently been terrorising Ambridge. “Peggy always had these amenable cosy cats before and this one is a brute, but I gather that the audience love it,” she says. This can only be a good thing, because the Archers audience is one of the most formidable in broadcasting history, deploring the recent spate of melodramatic plotlines, correcting the tiniest of continuity errors and waging class war on behalf of the Grundys.

There’s a copy of the fanzine Borsetshire Life in Spencer’s paper rack, so does she find the boundaries between reality and fiction blurring? Until she began to scale back, being Archers royalty meant there were a lot of village fetes to open, she says. But the paradox of being a radio star is that you can be a daily fixture in the life of the nation, yet walk down the street unrecognised. Until you open your mouth. She was disembarking from a plane in Menorca the other day when she stopped to thank the cabin staff, “and the stewardess said, ‘Are you famous? Ah yes, you’re Peggy Archer.’”


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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