From the archive: interview with June Spencer

by
20 December 2010

‘I’m Peggy when I’m in the studio, and I’m me when I leave’

BBC

I’ve played in The Archers since it started, on 1 January 1951. We did a pilot week in 1949 in the Midlands, but started on the national network in the new year, and it’s been the longest running in the world.

 

I did have a gap of two years when my husband and I adopted our two children. Another actress played Peggy; but then she went back to work in the theatre and I’ve done it ever since.

 

My voice is Peggy now. When she started, she had a slight Cockney accent, but gradually over the years, with the experiences she’s had, and the lifestyle, she’s me now.

 

We do have some similarities — we both love cats and we both love our gardens — but Peggy is much more straight-laced than I am. I don’t think she has much of a sense of humour. I’m an optimist.

 

Her character has changed a little over the years. There was a time when the scriptwriters didn’t seem to know what to do with her, after her first husband died, and she seemed to be rather different over those weeks!

 

Yes, I’m fond of her. She’s had a hard time. She’s an old friend.

 

I’m Peggy when I’m in the studio, and I’m me when I leave. Profes­sional actors never get confused be­tween real life and their characters. And I don’t think people really believe The Archers is real nowadays, but in the early days, some certainly did.

 

Sometimes people in the cast do ask to leave. Two come to mind: Gwen Berryman, who was dear Doris — she was too ill to carry on; and Alan Devereux is in his 70s, though it’s hard to believe it, and wasn’t in the best of health, and wasn’t enjoying it any more, so sadly, we had to lose Sid. He was out in Australia and collapsed while he was jogging — apparently.

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Sometimes I think some of the storylines are a bit difficult — but children are exposed to all sorts of things nowadays and if we treat these things without sensationalism, perhaps that helps them come to terms with them.

 

My first professional engagement was as an after-dinner entertainer, giving humorous monologues which I wrote myself. Then I went into weekly rep, which was hard work but very good grounding, and I enjoyed it very much. Then my husband was coming home after the war — he’d been away for three years and four months in India and Burma — and I didn’t want to be out in the theatre every night, so I went into radio. It was towards the end of 1943 and since there was no tele­vision then, there was lots of radio work.

 

I could do lots of voices and differ­ent dialects, and I did schools pro­grammes, features, poetry reading, dramas. . . People didn’t realise, but I played two characters in The Archers when it started — I was also Rita Flynn, the flighty Irish girl. Most of us had to play different characters then. I could disguise my voice, and did masses of Children’s Hours. I could play a 12-year-old girl in rep when I was 23, because I was small and slim.

 

I think the church in The Archers is very true to life, from the things we’ve done. The church and the pub are the central hubs of the village. Peggy was not in favour of women vicars, you’ll remember, and took her­self off to church in Borchester when that started; but she’s back again now, and goes every Sunday, as I do.

 

Yes, we have a new new Rector in my village, and there are some very ex­citing changes. Our church has so many members that we’ve split into two, with the old traditionalists, of whom I’m one, meeting in the church, and the more Evangelical and younger ones meeting in the adjoining hall. But there are plans to bring us back together. It’s very lively!

 

My house in Menorca is my bolthole where I go to relax. I love it — it’s a simple life I lead there, but it’s a very happy place and I generally take friends there. That’s where I’m happiest of all. My son David said to me: “Mum, it’s the best thing you ever did, apart from marrying Dad.”

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David died four years ago. He was a dancer, over six feet tall, and very handsome. He trained at the Rambert School of Dance and went over to Germany when he was 17 to work for the state ballet companies there. It was a very hard life, and when he was 36, he had to stop because he had terrible back trouble. He was married to a lovely English dancer — they were beautiful when they danced together — and they had a lovely little daughter.

 

Of course, when he had to stop dancing, his wife didn’t want to. She had a very young partner and they fell in love and she left him. That’s what triggered his alcoholism — he was broken-hearted — and he wasn’t able to stop. Losing David has been my big regret. Children shouldn’t die before their parents.

 

I still have my little Ros. She’s 55 now, though not very tall, and I still think of her as my little girl. She’s de­voted her life to deprived children, and worked with several county councils.

 

Roger and I met when we were 17, and married when we were 22, in 1942. We were very happy together, and it wasn’t till our Golden Wedding anniversary that he began to show signs of not having a very good mem­ory. It got worse and worse, and then he was diagnosed with Alz­heimer’s. More than affecting his memory, it affected his self-confidence. He wanted me to make every decision for him.

 

He had a stroke in Menorca, but got over that and was walking six months later; but then two days short of our 59th wedding anniversary, he had another stroke. I sometimes think that perhaps that was God being good to us? At least he didn’t have to live through the awful last stages of Alzheimer’s.

 

I was born and brought up in Not­tingham, which was a lovely city in those days, though I believe it’s the gun capital of England now. I was an only child. When I was about 14, mother became ill, so I left school to look after her and carry on my edu­cation part-time.

 

I always loved music — I grew up with music. I had piano lessons till I was 16, and passed the Associated Board’s Advanced Level; but the two hours a day practice interfered with mother’s rest. . . Still, all the training I had was so useful to me in my career.

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I’d always wanted to make a career in entertainment. Whenever I went away to friends, the visit would always end with a show that I arranged. When I was 12, I had my own little pro­duction company with six girlfriends, putting on plays that I wrote and dir­ected. Dr Barnardo’s got 12s.6d. the first year and 21s. the second year.

 

I’d like to be remembered as a familiar voice on the radio: a friend who would come into your home.

 

Work keeps me going, you know. I’ve just been doing a book festival to pro­mote my autobiography, and people keep saying: “You mustn’t get ex­hausted!” But it seems to have revital­ised me. I’ve so enjoyed having a live au­dience again and making them laugh.

 

You’ve got to be optimistic. There are two kinds of elderly people, I think — mouth turned down and mouth turned up. I’m the sort with my mouth turned up.

 

I can think of a sermon which changed my life. A couple of years ago we had an interregnum. Fortun­ately we have very good Readers, and one of them is absolutely brilliant. It was my turn to read the lesson in church one day, and he preached, say­ing: “You can’t call yourself a Chris­tian unless you can forgive.” I thought about my son’s wife who broke his heart and went home that day, sat down, and wrote her a letter. And since then we’ve been back on a friendly footing. That sermon cer­tainly changed me.

 

My favourite passage from the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13. I think the most important thing in the world is love. I hope I’m never asked to read 1 Chron­icles 1-16 with all those unpro­nounceable names. Well, I can’t think what good it would do to anybody.

 

When it’s too hot and crowded in Menorca, I like to go a river cruise somewhere in Europe, usually with friends, and I enjoy it enormously. Yes, I’ve done some entertaining on a cruise — I did an Archers Addicts cruise to the Baltic once. We do a number of shows and entertainments for them — they’re great fun.

 

Bad grammar: I get absolutely furi­ous when anyone says: “I was sat in the garden” instead of “I was sitting in the garden.” If someone says it on tele­­vision I shout back — which does no good at all, but relieves my feelings.

 

I prayed every night particularly for patience to cope with the Alz­heimer’s, and strength to cope with the stroke, when I had Roger. Now­adays, my prayer is mostly thanks, or for things like national disasters. I don’t go to prayer groups, but say my prayers at home, as I was brought up to do when I was little.

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I would choose to be locked in a church with my daughter Ros. We don’t meet all that often to talk, be­cause she lives in Suffolk, but we talk a lot on the phone. She and I could talk about old times, Roger and David . . . She’s a lot stronger than me and very practical, so, if I know her, she’d probably come up with a way of get­ting us out.

 

June Spencer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Her autobiography The Road to Ambridge: My life, Peggy, and ‘The Archers’ is pub­lished by JR Books (£16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-907532-25-5)

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