OBITUARY:Mollie Harris

Martha Woodford was a village shopkeeper and an archetypal mistress of gossip. There was nothing that she did not know about her village and, if she was often wrong in what she thought she knew, the free market that is village gossip soon put her right. She had a real country inquisitiveness; she never let a red herring go.

The shop was in Ambridge, six miles south of Borchester, in Borsetshire, the home country of the Radio 4 series The Archers. To call Ambridge a "fictional" place is to plunge into a logical fallacy. On Monday to Friday between the times of 1.40 and 1.55pm or 7.05 and 7.20pm (10.15-11.15am for a long lie on Sundays) Ambridge is a far more dependable world than any in non-fiction. Since 1951, when the "everyday story of country folk" was first broadcast, Ambridge has developed its own mythic, separate existence. Writers, actors, producers come and go, but nothing can stop the va-et- vient at the Bull, the pouring of tea at Brookfield, the ceaseless squabbles at Grange Farm.

Martha Woodford was the village shopkeeper. Mollie Harris was Martha Woodford. She joined the series in 1970, creating the part of Martha, widow of Herbert Lily, the postman at Penny Hassett, up the road from Ambridge beyond Lakey Hill. Two years later, at the age of 50, on Christmas Day 1972, Martha married Joby Woodford, an amiable and illiterate woodman. He it was who insisted that she take the job in the shop-cum-post-office as the employee of Jack Woolley, the local entrepreneur, proprietor of the Borchester Echo and owner of the Grey Gables Country Club.

Martha became if not a leading then a central character in the Archers story, especially so after the death of Joby, when she attracted the attentions of the roguish Joe Grundy and the down-on-his-luck Colonel Danby. The mechanics of soap writing demand regular establishing scenes in the pub, the wine bar, the shop, and there in the shop, amidst the village maelstrom, bright, decent, inveterately gossiping, always appeared Martha, her ripe voice the very spirit of country reassurance.

Jack Woolley tried to retire her once, in 1988; it was thought that she was losing her grip on the figures, that she was at a loss with VAT. But she would not be eliminated. She went part-time, sharing her duties with the stalwart Betty Tucker, martyr to a milkman husband. Only five weeks ago Martha was getting Neil Carter, the pigman turned feed rep, into trouble with his wife the ex-con Susan by talking out of turn behind the counter.

Now Mollie Harris has died. What will happen to Martha Woodford? A BBC spokesman yesterday revealed the scriptwriters' helplessness in the face of such events, where the two battling realities of life and soap-life cross. "It is our practice," he said, "to discuss this with the family as and when appropriate." By the family, he meant not the Archers, or the Woodfords (Martha left no children), but the Harrises.

"There is no question," he added, "of recasting the part."

James Fergusson

Mollie Harris had another life outside The Archers, writes Hugo Brunner. Her first book of autobiography, A Kind of Magic, recounting her childhood in West Oxfordshire, was published in 1969, the year before she joined the series. And she had by then already made a name for herself as a writer and broadcaster on rural matters in the south Midlands.

In the post-war years she wrote and contributed to programmes including In The Country, presented by Phil Drabble on the Midlands Home Service, and The Countryside. She was also one of the first voices on BBC Radio Oxford when it started broadcasting, and for a number of years she delighted listeners with her tales of the Oxfordshire country.

Her second book of memoirs, Another Kind of Magic, appeared in 1971, and the third, The Green Years, in 1976. All three were reissued this year as a trilogy, under the title All Kinds of Magic.

She was born Mollie Woodley, in Ducklington, near Witney, in 1913, and brought up in what she described as "happy poverty". But nobody who met her in later life could have guessed that she had been born before the First World War. She looked much younger than her years, and took care to conceal her age from her acquaintances. Although brought up at Ducklington, she lived for most of her life in Eynsham nearby, immortalising it in From Acre End: a portrait of a village (1982). Her husband, Ginger Harris, was a central heating engineer, who worked for Aldens, in Oxford. He died in 1982, and they leave a son, Peter.

Mollie Harris's autobiographical works form the heart of her oeuvre but she was also the prolific author of illustrated books on local crafts and topography, including Where the Windrush Flows (1989) and Wychwood: the secret Cotswold forest (1991), both illustrated with paintings by her cousin Gary Woodley. A great maker of country wines, from fruits, parsley or elderflower, she passed on her experience in A Drop o' Wine (1983). Her very special enthusiasm for traditional sanitation was displayed in Cotswold Privies (1984) and Privies Galore (1990), and in two exhibitions at Cogges Museum, Witney, which she organised and launched in style.

She was slightly above average height, an ebullient figure, fond of dogs (she is survived by her spaniel Fedora), and a great walker, recounting her enthusiasm in The Magic of the Cotswold Way (1987).

She lectured and was a tremendous promoter of her own books. She used to buy them in quantity from her publishers and sell them at the end of her talks. She was a born public speaker, but for her writing was more of a struggle. Yet her books effectively convey her charm and vivacity.

For years she raised money for the Imperial Cancer Campaign by means of sales in Eynsham, first in her garage and, when the events grew too large for it, in the local Women's Institute hall, often opened by one of her colleagues on The Archers.

Mollie Woodley, writer, broadcaster, actress: born Ducklington, Oxfordshire 23 June 1913; married 1937 Ginger Harris (died 1982; one son); died Oxford 2 October 1995.

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