When showbiz unions established the rule that performers must be told before signing a contract if the role might feature nude scenes, they understandably omitted radio. So it came as a surprise to several of the leading ladies of The Archers to learn that they’d be required to strip for a Borsetshire Christmas storyline.
“You’d walk down a corridor at the BBC,” says Annabelle Dowler, who plays Kirsty, “and you’d hear conversations like, ‘Well, I’m not taking my clothes off unless Lynda Snell does.’ So it was a bit odd.” Lynda obviously agreed, because Carole Boyd, who plays the snobbish busybody, is one of six actresses sitting wearing satin dressing gowns and Santa hats. “As I left the house this morning,” says Boyd, “I told my husband, ‘I’m just going into London to take my clothes off.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t in the diary.’ ”
Although a small proportion of the older male audience might have imagined a full-frontal Lynda – Penthouse meets farmhouse – the fantasy is becoming flesh because, as the supremo of the village Christmas show, she’s putting on Calendar Girls. Tim Firth adapted the play from his hit 2003 movie (Boxing Day, Sky Comedy) in which a Women’s Institute in Yorkshire raises money for cancer research by artfully embodying a month each.
For the purposes of the Christmas RT, the Ambridge version is being visualised in a photographic studio on a north London industrial estate. A stack of sheet music of Ding Dong Merrily on High stands ready to keep the carol-singing shot suitable for family viewing. A large plate of mince pies is another strategic prop. White screens are ready to be pulled across to create a “closed set”, a precaution more common for porn movies than an everyday story of farming folk.
Archers listeners may complain that RT has taken a sweetly surreal concept (naked radio) and made it a carnal reality. However, Sean O’Connor, the soap’s editor, who is supervising the shoot, says that the actresses “really entered into the spirit” of the striptease scenes when the episode was recorded.
So they took their clothes off for the wire-less? “No comment. But I can tell you that, for the first time, the Archers studio was a closed set.” The cast were also told to stay zipped up about the undress code for radio, but, while he’s getting a sandwich, Dowler laughs: “Let’s just say we all know each other a lot better now.”
O’Connor acknowledges that doing Calendar Girls for sound began as “a joke about doing something very visual in a non-visual context. It’s like the idea of ventriloquism on the radio.” Unseen nudity is only one of the games he’s playing with his yuletide storyline that may lead to The Archers becoming an unexpected talking point at seminars in European universities on metatextuality in fiction.
A stand-alone radio production of the Ambridge Calendar Girls (Sunday 27 December) will be bracketed by episodes featuring the final dress rehearsal and then an edition located backstage during the production of Lynda’s epic, in the style of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a farce about theatre going wrong.
And that isn’t the limit of the tricks. Among the women sitting round in their Christmas hats is Siân Phillips, who played Jessie in the original stage version of Calendar Girls, and now repeats the role in the Snell interpretation. At a PhD level of complexity, this Jessie is officially being acted by “Jean Harvey”, a resident mentioned but never heard in The Archers over the years. “I wanted to do it because I’m a huge fan of the show,” says Phillips. “But I was a bit confused when offered the part. I said, ‘Am I being Siân or Jessie? Or some other person playing Jessie?’ ”
With the confidence of someone who’s already explained all this to his Radio 4 bosses, O’Connor glosses: “There have been over 500 unheard parts in The Archers. So, in the show, we still never hear Jean, but there’s a running joke about her being a diva. In the dramatised Calendar Girls, Jean still isn’t heard and you get Siân’s Jessie.” For Phillips, at 82, it’s a career first: “I’ve actually never done a nude scene before. Today is the most undressed I’ve ever been in a photo.” As final preparations are made to the set, the women of Ambridge chat over fancy ciabattas. Topics include whether all of the squelchy kisses heard on The Archers use the old radio acting trick of lips smacking the back of a hand. “I do know that certain couples in the show always prefer to snog for real,” says Dowler.
Lynda’s escalating theatrical ambition has been a theme on The Archers. So how, next year, might she follow this striptease extravaganza?
Boyd thinks Lynda might have fun with The Merry Wives of Windsor, while Alison Dowling (Elizabeth) suggests that, in the interests of equality, the 2016 panto should be “the Ambridge men in The Full Monty”.
But this assumes that all your favourite characters will still be around when auditions for the Ambridge drama start next autumn. Before that, they have to get through the 65th-anniversary edition of The Archers on New Year’s Day. Five years ago, the celebrations of the 60th put a slippery roof on the Ambridge career of Nigel Pargetter (actor Graham Seed). “I’m ruling nothing in and ruling nothing out,” Sean O’Connor says. “But it will be completely different from any show’s anniversary episode ever, and defining for The Archers.”
As the ladies of Ambridge head through the modesty screens – with the whisper of dropping cloth – it strikes me the 65th-anniversary plotline may arise naturally from the Christmas one: a devastating epidemic of frostbite among a community of countrywomen.
Calendar Girls, Sunday 27 December 7.15pm Radio 4