To those for whom The Archers is completely real, the long floor of offices and studios at the BBC’s Birmingham HQ, its walls hung with maps of Borsetshire and photos of its inhabitants, is perhaps best seen as the Ambridge Tourist Office. I’m meeting Patricia Greene, who, as she says, “knows Jill better than anyone in the world” after playing her for 60 years.
These days, Greene records Jill’s lines in a smart, purpose-built complex at the BBC’s HQ in the Mailbox complex in the centre of Birmingham. But in 1957 she spoke the character’s first words, “in Broad Street, a tiny little studio with a pub across the road. Alas!”
The exclamation relates to a day when the character of Carol Grey (now Tregoran), was, as Greene puts it, “due to marry one of her many husbands” in the scenes recorded in the afternoon. “Because I only had one line, I had a drink at lunchtime. The line was: ‘Doesn’t she look lovely?’, but it came out ‘Dubbent debook lubbly?’ So they kept me there for an hour, repeating it. Since then, I’ve never had a drink and then worked.”
When she joined the cast, The Archers had been running for six years. Greene was hired for six weeks as Jill Patterson, who caught the eye of farmer Phil Archer, a widower for two years after the death of his wife Grace in a barn, notoriously torched by the BBC management in order to distract from the launch in 1955 of ITV as the first commercial television rival to the BBC.
Archers anniversary 1971
When Greene was asked to audition as Miss Patterson in 1957, she was busy in theatre and wary of even a brief commitment. The audition script described the character as a “sexy blonde”, so the actress vamped it up, doing an imitation of the actress Fenella Fielding, celebrated at the time for playing screen seductresses.
“Unfortunately, I got the job!”, Greene laughs. “I’ve learnt that this is the irony. You seem to be more likely to get a role if you don’t want it.”
The original intention had been that Farmer Phil would play the field, with Greene followed by a string of young actresses. But the producers liked what they were hearing between Greene and Norman Painting, who played Phil, and so they became the First Family of Ambridge. After Greene recorded her final scene as Jill Patterson the editor, Godfrey Baseley, grabbed her hand and said: “Congratulations! Forget the sex: you’re going to marry him!”
Not entirely forgetting sex, the Archers had four children: David, Elizabeth, Shula and black-sheep Kenton. “Back then,” Greene recalls, “you did kissing on the back of the hand. But I used to make it too loud. So Norman said: ‘I’ll do our kissing.’ But now they kiss for real.”
Meeting Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in 2011
Some of the audience, though, had not forgotten Grace: “I got a terrible letter early on from a woman saying: ‘But Grace lives; I just heard her in a play on the radio. So what does that make you and those children? You’re not married so they’re all bastards’.”
One of Greene’s many highlights was being summoned to record an emergency new scene when, 20 years ago this summer, Diana, Princess of Wales, died. Jill prayed aloud for her in the Ambridge church: “The director thought it would make the scene more intimate and sacred if he turned off the studio light. I said: ‘Sorry, dear, but I can’t see the script now!’”
When Norman Painting and Phil Archer died within months of each other at the end of the last decade, Jill risked becoming a more peripheral character, the widow of Glebe Cottage. But Sean O’Connor, showrunner of The Archers from 2013-16, moved her back to Brookfield Farm, the traditional heart of the action, and gave the granny strong storylines.
“I loved Sean,” says Greene, which may be some comfort to O’Connor, who recently abruptly left what seems to have been a less happy tenancy at EastEnders. “All Jill did for the first few decades was have children and cook breakfast. Sean gave me back my Aga and gave me Eleanor Bron [Carol] to talk to.”
In the 1980s the BBC management, feeling that quality had dropped, considered killing off either the show or large numbers of the cast. Were the actors aware of the jeopardy? “I was, because Norman Painting was writing scripts. And he used to come back from story conferences and say ‘Jill and Phil are off. We’re going to farm in Guernsey.’ And I thought: ‘Great! I can get back to theatre work.’ But we survived.”
On another occasion, theatre could have been her undoing, when she appeared in Coventry in a racy play: “The BBC top brass called me in and said: ‘We hear you’re going to say the f-word and do sex scenes. Why?’ Well, because I’m an actress.”
Although Jill has recently become an ecowarrior and had flirtatious conversations with men, might she be put out to pasture soon?
“I’m not going to tell you, but I am 86. And I should miss it terribly. I don’t usually get emotional about storylines but I’m a bit emotional doing this one I’m doing now.”
Although it looks like Greene is staying put, the actress admits she can’t imagine carrying on for as long as 98-year-old June Spencer, who plays Peggy Woolley. Greene has adjusted her workload with age, now being driven to and from home on each recording day because “the beds in hotels are too high”.
And, whatever the future holds for Jill, Greene now finds her more interesting to play: “I think now she’s quite left-wing in a pretty blue village, which is interesting.” Which way would she have voted on 8 June? “Oh, Lib Dem, I would think. She might have been persuaded by Corbyn at the last minute. But she hasn’t told me.”
The Archers airs Monday to Friday at 2pm and 7pm and on Sunday at 7pm. The Sunday omnibus starts at 10am – all on Radio 4