Obituary: Godfrey Baseley

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The Independent Online
When we left for Australia on Boxing Day a neighbour asked us to take a packet to her daughter, who has been living in Sydney for several years. I assumed it contained Christmas gifts for the Australian grandchildren. But no, it was tapes of recent editions of The Archers, which her daughter was missing desperately. It was symptomatic of the compulsive attraction The Archers commands, 46 years after Godfrey Baseley first started it.

In 1948 Baseley, then the producer of agricultural programmes for the BBC Midland Region, attended a meeting in Birmingham Council Chamber at which a farmer suggested that there should be a regular serial programme, similar to the thriller Dick Barton, Special Agent, but without the violence, covering the many problems of country folk in general. Baseley took up the idea, and recruited Geoffrey Webb and Edward Mason, the Dick Barton writers, to script some trial episodes of what was to become the most popular and longest-running British radio series. It was first heard in the Midland Region only at Whitsun in 1950, and nationally on the Light Programme from 1 January 1951.

Within two years the daily audience following the lives of Dan and Doris Archer and their neighbours at Ambridge had risen to nine and a half million. The programme deliberately included items of practical farming advice (about 15 per cent), supplied to Baseley by the Ministry of Agriculture, but the policy was "to give the general listener, i.e. the townsman, a good balance between the purely factual and the more entertaining aspects of country life".

In October 1953 Baseley was appointed to be the BBC's television rural programme organiser. When I became Head of Television Talks two months later I found that one of my duties was to write the annual staff report on Baseley's work. This was difficult, for he still devoted the vast majority of his time to supervising the detailed development of The Archers and practically nothing to the television service.

Baseley was a hard task- master. In 1955 he decided to get rid of the actress Ysanne Churchman (Mrs Tony Pilgrim) who played the role of the volatile Grace Archer and decided that she should die trying to save a horse from a blazing stable. This episode of The Archers was broadcast on the day that ITV started. Telephone lines to the BBC were blocked for hours. Among the callers was a man, who sounded quite young, who seemed beside himself with grief. He rang up again after midnight moaning into the telephone that his life had been ruined. But this time he was maudlin with drink, and finally burst into tears.

Baseley always denied that it was a deliberate publicity stroke, pointing out that the decision to kill Grace had been taken more than three months ahead. The placing of the episode was in fact a joint decision of The Archers' producer Tony Shryane and the Controller of the Light Programme. The BBC's publicity officer, John Crawley, made sure that the media correspondents had a special opportunity of hearing that edition. In the next morning's newspapers Grace Archer's heroic death completely upstaged the opening of ITV. Challenged in the brand-new television programme Highlight, the scriptwriters replied: "You feel badly about the death of Grace Archer. What do you think we feel? But why blame us? Do people blame Shakespeare for the death of Desdemona?"

Baseley was a thickset man with a booming voice. He had been educated at two Quaker boarding schools, Sibford and Bootham, and had originally trained for the stage. He made his first broadcast in 1929 and became a producer in Birmingham in 1943. The irascible Gilbert Harding was involved in some of Baseley's early farming programmes. When Baseley's wife Bessie asked him to tea and poured the milk in first, Harding went into a fearful tantrum. Mrs Baseley gave as good as she got and the occasion perished miserably. The next morning Harding was full of remorse and telephoned to apologise.

Baseley was dismissed as script editor of The Archers in 1972 and replaced by Malcolm Lynch, a former scriptwriter of Coronation Street. He disliked the arrival of Vanessa Whitburn from Brookside, and was dismayed by the "outing" of the fictional landlord of the Cat and Fiddle. "I cannot understand for a moment why they should want a homosexual character," he said last year. "The Archers has completely lost its way. Luckily I'm nearly completely deaf and can't listen to it any more."

Leonard Miall

Cyril Godfrey Baseley, radio producer, journalist and actor: born Alvechurch, Worcestershire 2 October 1904; General Programme Assistant, rural affairs, BBC 1947-53, Organiser (rural programmes), TV Talks 1953-57; married Bessie Hatwright (died 1989; two daughters); died Bromsgrove, Worcestershire 2 February 1997.