Norman Painting: Actor and writer who broke records in his long-standing role as Phil Archer in 'The Archers'

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The Independent Online

In fictional terms, farmer Phil Archer of Brookfield Farm, Ambridge, Borsetshire, was the perfect paterfamilias (though "patri-archer" might be the juster mot): bluff, honest, capable of being acutely (and comically) embarrassed, yet wise – even calculating – in an old-fashioned way.

He was a rock-like presence around whom a variegated and characterful faux-famille danced; arguing, joking, bully-ragging, shouting and bawling (and there was a good deal of shouting and bawling around the turn of the Millennium when Phil finally decided to slice up the family fortunes and discovered just how sharper than a serpent's tooth the thankless child's could be).

In reality, Norman Painting, the actor who played Phil Archer in BBC Radio 4's daily 15-minute drama serial The Archers for well over half a century, was always at pains – often at very great pains – to insist that he was not Phil Archer and Phil Archer was not him, although during the last two decades of his life, he at last came to grudging terms with his own extraordinary achievement, holding the record as the world's longest-running actor in the same role. Reluctantly, in interviews, he would concede that "perhaps" he had been involved in "something rather special... in fact something quite unique".

Even so, whenever this was acknowledged, there was always the unspoken implication that that role, though it placed him squarely (and almost certainly uniquely, and for ever) in the record books, was by no means the kind of role in classic drama he had once aspired to.

And of course Painting wasn't Phil Archer, but a complex individual who had fears, worries, doubts and obsessions Phil would perhaps never have dreamed existed. "He worried continually about work conditions and pay, and security," erstwhile Archers editor William Smethurst (the man who in the 1970s cleverly turned the serial into a modern comedy of manners) once recalled.

He could also be witheringly abrasive when the mood took him, often at the most inappropriate moments. He seemed to delight in being crustily frank at cast beanos graced by senior Corporation brass, especially if he felt (frequently the case) that the BBC was taking advantage of him.

Norman Painting was born in Leamington Spa in 1924. The son of a fifty-bob-a-week railway signalman, he was a boy of questing intelligence who was educated at Leamington College, then at King Edward VI School, Nuneaton. He attended Birmingham University, graduating with a First in English, then, hoping for a purely academic career, he went on to Oxford (Christ Church) where he studied Anglo Saxon poetry, later tutoring in the subject at Exeter College for a while (to oblige the great Nevill Coghill). Disastrously, towards the end of his term, he changed the subject of his thesis from Anglo Saxon poetic imagery to Coleridge's dreary tragedy Osorio, and was failed (the news conveyed to him by telephone by Lord David Cecil in characteristically breathless and squeaky mode, "No good, Painting. No good at all".)

Luckily, by this time he was already immersed in "the drama", having directed a well-received production of Cocteau's The Infernal Machine. This led, inevitably, to work for OUDS (Oxford University Dramatic Society), and more regular work for the BBC, for whom he had begun broadcasting whilst still at Birmingham (four-minutes worth of King Lear with himself, aged 21, in the title-role).

From the start, Painting had wanted to be a writer more than he wanted to be an actor, and thus his work for the BBC over the years encompassed both acting in as well as writing for radio drama in its heyday and the old Features department (documentaries). He became a poetry reader with producers such as John Arlott (on numerous occasions co-reading with Dylan Thomas) and he also wrote and acted for the legendary radio producer (i.e. director) R D "Reggie" Smith, husband of the novelist Olivia Manning (and the feckless "Guy" to her "Harriet" in Manning's novel cycles The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy). Painting often had to put up with Smith's hair-raising habit of creeping into the studio, pencil in hand, and cutting a script while the actors were actually reading it during the "live" broadcast.

For Graham Gauld, erstwhile FX man on The Archers who moved onwards and upwards into directing for Children's Hour (and later even grander fare), Painting produced a good deal of material. He also turned in some fine work for one of the foremost creative radio drama producers of the period, Anthony Cornish, including two eerily atmospheric John Buchan adaptations, Midwinter and The Blanket of the Dark, as well as sensitive dramatisations of two notoriously difficult novels, Mary Webb's The Golden Arrow (1968) and Elizabeth Bowen's nuance-filled The Little Girls (1969), the latter for Radio 3.

By the mid 1970s, Painting had already been playing Phil Archer, as the "day-job", for nearly a quarter of a century, and had even produced an entertaining, and bestselling, history of the programme, Forever Ambridge (1975).

The Archers, brainchild of the irascible Midlands radio producer Godfrey Baseley ("God" to his often apprehensive cast, and with all of a god's fearsome powers over life and death), famously began life – in 1950 as a one-week try out, then five nights a week with an omnibus on Sundays from January 1951 – as a kind of farming Dick Barton, whose main purpose was to dish out Ministry of Agriculture propaganda under the sugared coating of entertainment.

It succeeded from the start with strong, dramatic storylines featuring murder, kidnap, sabotage, adultery, diamond smuggling, espionage, a jet-plane crash and an unmistakable hint of Sapphic passion (Christine Archer – yes, Christine Archer – and a certain Lady Hydleberrow), all within the first two or three years, certainly giving the lie to the oft-repeated latterday grizzle that recent editors have "dumbed" the serial "down". Both Baseley and his longtime producer Tony Shryane knew perfectly well that goody-goody storylines never had the remotest chance of bringing home the listening-figures bacon, a fact recognised by the present incumbent of The Archers' editorial hot seat, Vanessa Whitburn (in Painting's judgement "amongst the top three"), who's proved both clever and calculating when it comes to both "big" and minor storylines.

Painting's relations with the various editors, directors and writers ("my masters") over the years was often fractious. He had fierce rows with Baseley, and was convinced (wrongly) that editor Jock Gallagher was a one-man Fifth Column sent by BBC "suits" in London to destroy the programme. Matters were not helped when a land-deal miscalculation lost him, on paper at any rate, quite a staggeringly large fortune. This was privately blamed on the BBC who, he felt, when he had needed fluid funds, had kept him short.

He had a close friendship with Geoffrey Webb (co-founding Archers writer, with Edward J. Mason), and when Webb died, Painting took up the writing reins, as "Bruno Milna", in the end producing some 1200 scripts over a 15-year period.

His love of gardens and gardening was reflected in a number of features and documentaries he made for television. He chaired a TV quiz of his own devising, The Garden Game, from 1976 to 1982, and later appeared regularly on the Radio 4 panel game The Gardening Quiz.

Painting never married. Throughout his early life he had a fondness for the older woman of maternal instincts and matronly aspect who could also be a bit of a goer on the side (Gwen Berryman, who played his mother Doris Archer in the serial, was a special favourite; the brilliant woodcut artist Joan Hassall another). Otherwise his private life was successfully veiled from intrusive eyes, although he was certainly not partner-less during the 1970s.

In 1982, just as he'd finished writing his somewhat prickly autobiography, Reluctant Archer, his health collapsed. In the space of four days he sustained five heart attacks and at one stage, in hospital, was technically dead. He recovered, but during the following decade suffered pancreatitis, a retinal detachment and prostate surgery. A multiple heart bypass in 1990 gave him back much of his health, although at the end of 2000, when celebrations for the 50th anniversary of The Archers were ongoing, it was announced that he had cancer of the bladder. "I hope this is something I can live with," he said at the time. "I have no plans to retire."

Nor did he. In fact, over the next few years he was often a bustling centre-stage figure in the serial's plotlines, his patriarchal sarcasm, sotto voce rebellious mutterings, and clenched-teeth exasperation (particularly in scenes with the absurdly "Green" Lynda Snell) revealing a comic talent that had fully matured over the years.

Norman George Painting, writer, actor and broadcaster: born Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 23 April 1924; OBE 1976, honorary life governor Royal Agricultural Society of England 1976, vice president the Tree Council; died Warmington, Warwickshire 29 October 2009.