Arnold Peters: The voice of Jack Woolley in 'The Archers'

 

For more than 30 years Arnold Peters was the familiar voice of Jack Woolley, the businessman in The Archers, the world's longest-running radio soap opera. Woolley was a pillar of society in Ambridge, the fictional village in which the programme is set, owning a number of the landmarks in the area, including a hotel, café, shop, as well as a share in the local newspaper.

"He loved acting," said June Spencer, who played Woolley's third wife, Peggy Archer. "It was his life. As an actor he was the complete pro. He was very conscientious. He always turned in a good performance, no matter what we were doing."

Peters was born Peter Gadd in Hendon in 1925 and grew up in Northamptonshire, where he attended Wellingborough School. His love of theatre came from his parents, who would stage mini-productions at home, while he would rig up the house wireless set with a microphone to create his own radio broadcasts.

Following a brief period in the RAF he joined the Northampton Repertory Theatre, working there for five years after the war. He then went on to the BBC Drama Repertory Company, based in Birmingham, which led to his radio debut on Children's Hour.

Peters first joined the cast of The Archers in 1953 and initially played two other characters: the farmhand Len Thomas, a role he had for 13 years, and the Reverend David Latimer (1968-1973). He took over the role of Jack Woolley in May 1980 following the death of Philip Garston-Jones, who had played him for the previous 18 years.

As the local businessman he was at various times the proprietor of the Grey Gables Hotel, the Borchester Echo and Jaxx Café. His proudest moment was the unveiling of the Jack Woolley Pavilion at the Ambridge Cricket Ground, named in his honour. He could be a hard-dealing individual but also showed his philanthropic side when he rescued the village shop at a time of crisis. Over the years, and as his health changed, Woolley decided to divest himself of his businesses, leaving them in the hands of other Archers characters. Woolley became a part of the Archer family when he married Peggy Archer in 1991, with his Staffordshire bull terrier, Captain, serving as guest of honour at the wedding, dressed up in a blue bow.

Peters' other roles included as a shopkeeper in Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven (1978), an advertisement for Werther's Original sweets, in which he played the kindly grandfather, and an episode of Only Fools and Horses (1986). An enthusiastic supporter of the dramatic arts, he worked with the team involved in creating the 500-seat The Castle theatre in Wellingborough, in the run-up to its opening by Jeremy Irons in March 1995. He had been a keen amateur musician throughout his life, since playing in a band during his schooldays.

Around 2003, when Peters began to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, he and the programme's writers decided to merge real life and fiction, weaving his condition into the Archers plot. Until that time Alzheimer's had been discussed in documentaries on radio and television but seldom in the context of a radio drama.

The chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, Jeremy Hughes, commented: "For Arnold Peters to play the part of someone living with Alzheimer's disease when art was truly imitating life took great strength and courage. The Archers was one of the very first programmes to depict dementia in a storyline." The show won a Mental Health Media award in 2007 in recognition of its sensitive handling of the issue.

For the recording of Peters' last Archers speaking role, in July 2011, the production team and cast visited Peters rather than have him come to the studio. "We went to see him in his retirement home," June Spencer recalled. "His memory was failing but he could still turn in a good performance. He read it perfectly. We worked together just as we'd always done, up to the last." Following this episode Peters remained a part of The Archers, but as a silent character, whose health was mentioned from time to time.

The editor of The Archers, Vanessa Whitburn, said, "Arnold was immensely successful as Jack Woolley. With enormous skill he took the character from sharp, sometimes ruthless, businessman, mellowing through the years into retirement and eventual dependence on his wife Peggy as Alzheimers set in. Only the best actors can fine-tune those character arcs over many years, and Arnold was the best."

Peter Reginald Gadd (Arnold Peters), actor: born Wollaston, Northamptonshire 3 June 1925; married Beryl (one daughter); died 11 May 2013.

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