98-year-old actor June Spencer reveals how The Archers keeps her young

The veteran Peggy Woolley star on why she'd prefer to have the cast list read out on air, what really happens to her fan mail and her dream of turning 100 on the show

Programme Name: n/a - TX: 20100101 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:   - (C) BBC - Photographer: AMELIA TROUBRIDGE

You were in the first, pilot episode of The Archers back in 1950… would you have believed it would last so long?

No. It was a tuppenny-ha’penny thing. And very badly paid. But you do whatever comes up. At the time, we were told that it wasn’t a drama programme, it was “real life overheard”. Which is why, of course, the cast list is never read on air.

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We’re anonymous voices. So, although Peggy is well known, the present generations have never heard of June Spencer.

Is it nice to have that anonymity?

It would be nice to be acknowledged, actually. Particularly when you have an emotional episode, such as Peggy’s goodbye to Jack. I worked a lot on the line where Peggy says, “Goodbye, my darling.” And, at the end, they read out who it’s been written by and who the editor is, but there’s no mention of the actress. But if listeners want to know, they can look in Radio Times.

Does acting keep your mind young?

It’s a breath of life to me. And I find we can teach the younger members of the cast a bit. I don’t think many of them have had speech training — and, in radio, it’s all about the voice. If you can’t be heard by people with impaired hearing, like me, or those with inferior radios, then what’s the point?

Also, I work on the scripts and rehearse them as soon as I get them. And if I’ve got difficult stuff, then I do a lot of work on them. But I see some of the younger ones marking up their scripts just before the read-through and I think, “You haven’t worked on it!”

Do you ever think about retiring?

I want to continue for as long as I can turn in a decent performance — I wouldn’t want to go downhill. But I’d like to turn 100 [in June 2019] and still be in The Archers. I’m afraid I can’t wait to retire until Peggy’s 100 because she’s five years younger than me.

Do you find things more difficult these days?

I have degeneration of my spine, which makes me very bent, so it’s difficult to stand at the microphone, though the studio manager really looks after me and there’s always a chair for me while we’re waiting. Sometimes, if Peggy has to stand at the end of a scene, I fake the sound of making the effort to get up.

Are the Archers a second family?

They are — and a much bigger family than my own. It’s a very happy atmosphere. We really care about each other. Sometimes, though, we can go months without seeing friends if our storylines don’t coincide.

Do you drive to the studio?

No, not now. I used to drive myself up to Birmingham a couple of times a week. But now they let me have a car.

Do you still get fan mail?

We don’t see it. In the old days, fan mail was sent to us, but now it’s dealt with at the office, which I think is a pity. If people write to a character, they want a reply from the character. I still have a letter that was addressed to Peggy Archer — as she was then — The Bull, Ambridge. And it reached me.

In a way, I’m sorry not to be Peggy Archer anymore because I used to be at the top of the cast list after Dan, Doris and Jack died. Then Peggy married Jack Woolley and I plunged to the bottom!

What has been your highlight?

It would have to be Jack’s Alzheimer’s story [which ended with his death in 2014]. It gave me great scope as an actor and it was a subject very dear to my heart because my husband Roger also had Alzheimer’s.

Were you apprehensive about it?

No, I embraced it very eagerly. In fact, the writers wanted to know what it was like to be a carer for someone with Alzheimer’s. We took the story from the beginning right through to the bitter end — and the chief researcher at Alzheimer’s Research UK said it was the best portrayal he’d ever heard.

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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