After 59 years, the voice of Phil Archer dies

Norman Painting, the voice of Phil Archer for 59 years on the Radio 4 soap The Archers, died yesterday at the age of 85.

The actor was found by his carer at his cottage in the Oxfordshire village of Warmington. Born in Leamington Spa in 1924, Painting had played the Ambridge farmer since the show's trial run in 1950. He is featured in The Guinness Book of Records as the longest-serving actor in a single soap. In recent years, though, his appearances on The Archers have been limited due to ill health.

His most recent appearance on the show was in September, but he spent what was to be his final day in the studio on 20 October. His final episode will be broadcast on 22 November, when the character will be surrounded by his grandchildren preparing for Christmas.

Painting was a graduate of Birmingham University, a former Oxford tutor, an opera director, and actor with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He also made regular appearances in pantomimes. He received an OBE in 1976, and his autobiography Reluctant Archer was published in 1982.

His character Phil Archer began his journey as the younger son of Dan and Doris Archer, but eventually became master of Brookfield Farm and patriarch of the Archer clan. Painting also wrote more than 1,200 of the 16,000 Archers episodes under his pen name, Bruno Milna.

Mark Thompson, BBC director general, said he was "deeply saddened" to learn of the actor's death, and Vanessa Whitburn, The Archers' editor, described Painting as a "consummate professional". She said: "Under his sure hand, Phil graduated seamlessly from young romantic hero to serious farmer and father – holding Brookfield together in good times and bad, handing over the farm to eldest son David in 2001."

In 2000, Painting revealed he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, but was determined it would not mean the end of Phil Archer. "I see no reason why this illness should prevent me from continuing doing what I love," he said at the time.

His character was involved in many of the show's key storylines over the years, but his most dramatic moment came in 1955 when his first wife Grace died in a barn fire while trying to save a horse.

Recalling the episode on its 50th anniversary, Painting said: "Even when I'd read my script, I didn't really believe it was going to happen." When it aired, the episode clashed with ITV's first broadcast – many people suspected it was not a coincidence.

The Archers began in the days of food rationing, with the intention of encouraging Britain's farmers. Painting was originally recruited to write a week-long trial run of the programme, but found himself cast as one of its principal characters. After three months he tried to resign to return to more serious pursuits. His request fell on deaf ears.

In contrast to his Ambridge persona as the father of Shula, Kenton, David and Elizabeth – and grandfather of Pip, Daniel, Josh and the Pargeter twins – Painting was a lifelong bachelor.

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