HOW WE MET

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD AND JUDY BENNETT
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The Independent Culture
Actress Judy Bennett, 52, was born in Liverpool. She trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and joined the cast of The Archers in 1971, playing Shula. She has two sons from her first marriage, and a daughter from her marriage to Charles Collingwood. Collingwood, 52, was born in Canada. He went to school in Dorset, and then to Rada. He has been playing Brian Aldridge in The Archers for 20 years, as well as doing TV and theatre work

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD: I first got to know Judy in 1972 on a children's television series, although we met briefly a year or two before that. We used to do voices for cartoon series and puppet shows. But we really got to know each other on Words and Pictures, a zany series which we did in Bristol. Judy and I did the voices for these glove-puppet characters called Boffs. We used to do them by putting our fingers in our mouths and wiggling them about and making gurgling noises; it's a strange way to form a relationship, but it seemed to bind us together. We were both in bad marriages, and alth-ough we were not having an affair, we sympathised with each other about the state of our domestic lives.

When those marriages ended, our friendship grew. I admired Judy's talent, and especially her talent for "doing" children. When I first met her she was doing a lot of radio: she had been in The Dales and Waggoner's Walk, she had just joined The Archers. And the irony is that for 20 years I've been playing Brian Aldridge in The Archers, and he's married to Jennifer. In real life Judy's first husband was called Brian, and my first wife was called Jennifer. Another coincidence is that when my character Brian marries Jennifer, she has two children, and so did Judy in real life. So, I took on these two boys, who are now 26 and 28. It took a year or two for us to become close. Our spouses were having to adjust, and so were the children. It was a softly softly, tread carefully time.

By 1975 we were together and living as a family, and my wife had got her life sorted out. Since Judy and I got together I haven't looked back professionally, and neither has she. We were determined to make it work. When you first meet someone, you have a physical attraction, and usually that is short-lived, but our physical attraction still remains. But what we developed early on was trust and friendship. We have the same sense of humour and laugh at each other's jokes.

I admire Judy's strength: she's very fiery. I think I'm able to pull back from a crisis more than her, but sometimes the combination can be quite good, because she might have exploded at something, and I've been more cool, but her outburst has been correct. Her anger galvanises me, but she's not an angry person. If we do have a row, we shout, have a drink and then a laugh.

Judy's been in The Archers 24 years and I've been in it for 20 - an awfully long time. We rarely play scenes together; in the programme Jennifer, my wife, is Shula's cousin. It has been an amazing two years because Shula's husband, Mark, was killed in a car crash. And all that time Judy was playing those harrowing scenes, with Shula howling into her mother's arms, or sitting on her own. There was one extraordinary occasion two years ago; we were in the kitchen and Judy was getting lunch ready. The Archers was on - Shula was in such shock over Mark, and I was sitting at the table with my head in my hands crying my eyes out while the girl who was playing Shula - my wife in real life - was standing there calmly stirring the soup.

My marriage to Judy is very different from my fictional marriage in The Archers, because Brian Aldridge has had a number of affairs, and sometimes I think that playing Brian may be a wonderful outlet for me. Maybe someone will one day say that the only reason my marriage to Judy has lasted is because I was so unfaithful on-air.

Judy's my best friend. We have so many things in common. I am besotted with cricket, and she loves it too. She'll lie awake all night listening to the cricket from Australia. What would I miss about her if I didn't see her any more? I'd miss her whole presence, her laughter. She's enormously supportive. I do a lot of after-dinner speaking, and she listens to my anecdotes as though she'd never heard them before. That's loyalty. It may be old-fashioned of me, but I still think that if you can hack it, a good marriage is the best thing you can have.

JUDY BENNETT: I first met Charles in a recording studio doing a children's television series. I wasn't drawn to him initially, but in the end his charm won me over. We helped each other get through the horrors of ending our marriages. After that, we were both drawn to each other. Charles made me laugh and we had a good time - it was fun, and life hadn't been fun.

He was wonderful with my children, who were tiny, and it all felt just right. We knew each other for three years before we got married, and he was a very good figure in my children's lives and they were the most important thing in my life at that time. So life just took a good turn, we met new friends, and came out of what had been two difficult years. Charles is funny and generous and if he likes somebody he'll do anything for them. Although we have worked a lot together, we never planned it that way. He is reliable too: if he says he'll be somewhere on time, he'll arrive early. He's organised - and maybe that's down to his boarding school upbringing - whereas I'm not like that. He's outgoing and mixes more easily than I do. I'm more volatile, whereas generally he's tolerant and more laid- back. I'm a great reader, but he prefers to be doing things.

He's domesticated; I suppose you could call him a "new man" - horrible expression! When our daughter was tiny he shared the feeding and nappy changing; he does his own washing and ironing, and he loves cooking. What's more, he's brilliant at flower arranging and loves gardening.

Charles is an optimist and I'm a pessimist. He always thinks the glass is half full; I think it's half empty. He constantly plans ahead. If I'm on holiday, I don't wear a watch, and I don't know what time it is, so I'll just eat whenever I'm hungry. But he eats by the clock, and lunch at 1pm is a joke in our family, we always eat at 1pm on the dot.

We very seldom work together on The Archers, we're rarely in the same episodes, so often we're ships that pass in the night. I'll go up to Pebble Mill for a morning recording and he'll go up in the afternoon. We don't talk about The Archers that much, because it's only for one week a month and we do other things the rest of the time. But I like having him in the cast, it's the companionship. I don't think Charles is like Brian Aldridge at all, although he's charming too. Brian is a womaniser, and I don't think Charles is. Brian is not as gregarious or as funny as Charles. But I do think he rather likes Brian - he probably considers him his alter ego. Brian and Jennifer's marriage in The Archers is very different from mine and Charles's. It is one of the many coincidences in our life that Charles was married to someone called Jennifer and I was married to someone called Brian.

Charles is wonderfully imaginative. I once had an old Honda Civic which I had bought from Maureen Lipman, who devoted a whole chapter of her book to it. It was called Wanda and I absolutely adored it. But a few years ago Wanda finally packed up and I desperately wanted a new one. My birthday was coming up and Charles talked about buying me a car, but he said he couldn't really afford a Honda, so we looked at some Ford Fiestas instead. We had a terrible time test-driving them, so I told him to forget about it.

Anyway, my birthday came along and the front doorbell rang. There was this woman from a party shop standing there with a huge party balloon, with a big card saying "Happy Birthday" and I was cooing over that when Charles said: "What's that inside?"

Suspended inside the balloon was a car key. We went outside and I was expecting to see a Ford Fiesta, instead of which there was this Honda Civic covered with balloons and pink ribbons. And he told me that the business of trying out the Fiesta was just a blind because he had already bought the Honda but didn't want me to have an inkling. I just burst into tears. !

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