As ITV celebrates its 60th birthday, the company’s chairman, Archie Norman, will find in his post a card that reads: “Congratulations, Grace Archer.” The message has been sent by the actress Ysanne Churchman, who played Phil’s young wife in The Archers but burned to death in a barn fire in the edition of 22 September 1955. It’s commonly asserted that Grace was ruthlessly sacrificed by BBC managers intent on distracting from the launch that night of the first rival to the Corporation’s TV monopoly.
Apart from the signature on the jokey note to the ITV boss, Grace also comes back to life in a radio play, Dead Girls Tell No Tales (today at 2.30pm on Radio 4), which intriguingly suggests that the character was killed not because of the BBC’s hostility to ITV but due to enmity towards Churchman from the soap’s first editor, Godfrey Baseley, whose nickname of “God” attested to the control he exercised over actors. The drama is scripted by long-time Ambridge writer Joanna Toye and directed by its current editor, Sean O’Connor.
So is a new editor of The Archers taken to a safe that contains the secrets of the serial, including why Grace really died? “No,” laughs O’Connor. “But some of the original actors are still in the show or remain in touch with us. Patricia Greene [Jill Archer], who started in 1957, is still around and June Spencer [Peggy Woolley] is still with us at 96. So the actors are the archive of the show, really.”
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When he started thinking about the drama, O’Connor accepted the legend that Grace had been killed in an attempt to shoot down ITV in flames. “That is the folklore I inherited, and is what most of the people on the show believe, apart from the senior executives, who knew the truth. But there were slightly different versions of that truth, some of them more melodramatic than others.”
Ysanne Churchman, aka Grace Archer
An earlier draft of Dead Girls Tell No Tales started with Churchman slapping Baseley on the face in a scene, O’Connor acknowledges, that echoed scenes in recent Alfred Hitchcock biopics of the horror director’s sexual harassment of the actress Tippi Hendren. The oldest performers on the show remembered being told that “Grace” had hit the editor, but Churchman denies it, and so the scene was removed, although the play retains an air of Hitchcockian intrigue about why Baseley became incensed by the young actress; before incinerating Grace, he had sent her character away to Ireland for a year.
In a book published in the 1990s, former Archers editor William Smethurst recalled a conversation in which Baseley attributed the execution of Grace to his fury at Churchman lobbying for equal pay for actresses. The drama investigates this theory but also suggests that the editor scheduled the storyline on that particular night for his own, rather than corporate, advantage. He was, O’Connor thinks, “trying to get rid of Ysanne under cover of the launch of ITV” in a prototype of the Westminster tactic of “burying bad news” on a day of big headlines.
A key source for the play was an interview videotaped by Churchman in 2002 for a TV documentary about the BBC’s 75th anniversary. When the actress insisted that the story of Grace’s exit be broadcast in full or not at all, it went unused but Churchman retained a DVD and allowed Toye to see it as research.
The 90-year-old Churchman was delighted to be be speaking to RT because this magazine played a vital role in her life. A photo of her acting in a radio play, featured in a 1949 edition, was carried in his wallet by Tony Pilgrim, who determined to meet her. They were married for 63 years until his recent death.
Pilgrim became a senior manager at BBC Birmingham, home of The Archers, and her long silence on Grace’s demise was largely due to sensitivity about his position: “It would have been very difficult for Tony, because he had to see the people involved every day. But, also, it was a pretty unpleasant experience and I don’t like unpleasant things.”
Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Ysanne Churchman in the play
When O’Connor originally asked to see her, Churchman at first wondered if Grace was going to come back as a character: “I said: ‘Is there going to be a seance?’”
The editor insists that the writers never considered resurrecting the first Mrs Phil Archer, but The Archers edition broadcast on the exact anniversary of the character’s conflagration will contain “an extraordinary remembrance of Grace. It won’t be someone dying in a barn but we pay some homage to the past while solving a question mark that has been going on in the series for a while.” Listeners will note that Grace was née Fairbrother and that two distant descendants, Rex and Toby Fairbrother, have just turned up in the village.
Churchman delivers an epilogue to the play but rewrote the speech Toye had given her to emphasise what she believes to have been Baseley’s motivation, although the BBC has agreed to her request that her precise complaint should not be revealed until after transmission. Did Simon Russell Beale’s performance as her nemesis bring back to her what he was like? “Yes. Unfortunately.”
Dictatorial and eccentric, Baseley later cast himself in the show as Brigadier Winstanley. O’Connor promises that he has no plans to be heard leaning on an Ambridge fence, although he may have seen some parallels with the struggles of his predecessor. Toye’s lines about the tendency of BBC managers to take credit but evade blame – and creative tensions between the London and Birmingham arms of the Corporation – may be heard as contemporary and historical.
The current editor has already had headline interest himself, when BBC director-general Lord Hall appeared to accept the premise, during an interview for Radio Times, that The Archers was becoming “EastEnders in a field”.
“I was a bit annoyed,” says O’Connor. “But he rang me at 7.30 in the morning and said that he was terribly sorry. And I said: ‘You do know it’s getting an extra 3.5 million listeners on the podcast? That it’s doing as well as it did in the 50s?’ And he said he apologised and we were doing a wonderful job.”
The present inhabitants of Ambridge don’t have to worry too much about following Grace to soap heaven, says O’Connor. “In East- Enders, for example, so many people have died that the audience is inured to character deaths. The feeling among the senior actors in The Archers is that they don’t want their characters to die before them so we make no plans for their departure.”
Dead Girls Tell No Tales is on BBC Radio 4 today (Saturday 19th September) at 2.30pm