June Spencer: a life in Ambridge
She may be the longest-running character on the world's most durable soap, but June Spencer rarely gets recognised – and that's just fine by her, she tells Simon Usborne
June Spencer is sitting with her feet up, the day after her triumphant turn at the BBC Audio Drama Awards. "I'm so tired I don't know what I'm saying," the 94-year-old tells me from her home in Surrey, where she is still buzzing after the ceremony in London.
"It was absolutely wonderful. The Director General himself gave me the award, which, incidentally, weighs a ton, and I got some beautiful roses. To be appreciated like that after 70 years is something I treasure very much."
Spencer has spent 63 of those years in showbusiness as the longest-serving actor on The Archers, the world's longest-running soap opera. Tony Hall, the BBC boss who presented her with a lifetime achievement award at Broadcasting House, had not been born when Spencer arrived in 1950 to record the show's pilot episodes as Peggy (Woolley, née Perkins, formerly Archer). The series, conceived as a public service to farmers after wartime rationing, was never supposed to endure.
"We started as just a very small show," recalls Spencer, who earned £12 for the first five episodes. "We worked with the information from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farming and were told that it wasn't a drama but life overheard. Ever since, of course, we've been the only show, I think, where people never get credits on air. We're still mostly anonymous."
Spencer still travels to BBC Birmingham to record her scenes. "Just before Christmas, I spent a week there doing eight episodes," she says. "Next month, I've only got one. When I'm there, I'm like the old granny that I am. They're a wonderful cast. Last night it was lovely because I had young Tom with me and Helen and Pat: Peggy's family."
The Archers quickly earned an audience beyond the farming community and has adapted to the times.
"It was a very much slower production then," Spencer says. "We had music between scenes and the storylines were about the progress of farming. Now, of course, we do a lot about problems that crop up in everyday life."
Spencer won praise for helping to raise awareness of mental health when her on-air husband, Jack Woolley, developed, and later died from, Alzheimer's. Arnold Peters, who played Jack, recorded his final scenes at his home in 2011, two years before he, too, died from the disease. Throughout the scenes, Spencer was still grieving the loss of her real-life husband, Roger, who died of Alzheimer's in 2001. They had been a couple for 59 years.
"Before our story went on air, Alzheimer's was a subject that was almost taboo," Spencer says. "It's lovely to think now, that through my husband's illness, he has in some way done a lot of good by his story coming out and telling the public what it's like. It was also wonderful for me as an actress, because the scenes were always so beautifully written."
Spencer busies herself during quieter weeks by playing Scrabble, having lunch with friends and attending a seated exercise class in the village where she lives. Very occasionally, people recognise her voice and ask for an autograph, but even after six decades, relative fame and plaudits have not bred complacency.
"I still listen to the show to keep up with the story, but also to check my performance," she says. "I think I'm a very stern critic."
Spencer deservedly spent much of yesterday afternoon sitting down, but will be back on air soon and has no plans to put down her microphone.
She says: "As long as they'll have me and as long as I can get there, I'll keep doing it."
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