June Spencer: 'I am not Peggy Woolley. She has no sense of fun'

She has been in The Archers since it began 60 years ago. But the actress, now 91, has had more than her share of drama in real life too. Paul Bignell meets June Spencer.
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A white, sporty Citroën Saxo pulls up and actress June Spencer – Peggy Woolley to you – springs from the driver's side and runs, yes runs, around to open the door for me. She has kindly offered to pick me up from her local railway station. She is plainly amused by my mild shock. A faint smile mocks me: have I never seen a 91-year-old run before?

The sight is disconcerting but the voice is the epitome of reassurance. Next week Radio 4's The Archers will have been on the air for 60 years. June Spencer's is the only voice that has been there from the start, a fixture in the kitchens and sitting rooms of middle England since Clement Attlee was prime minister.

In her own sitting room of the neat bungalow in rural Surrey where she lives alone, tea is refreshed regularly and there is no stinting on the biscuits. Photographs of her family line the walls and mantelpiece.

It is a calm and remarkably unaffected home setting for, arguably, one of the best-known voices in the English-speaking world.

Despite some five million listeners tuning in each week to catch up on the goings-on in the fictional village of Ambridge, you get the impression she doesn't much care for fame. Bar the opening of the odd church fete, the anonymity of radio suits her just fine. "I think we're the only drama programme on the air which doesn't have a cast read out at the end. We're completely anonymous," she says, making it clear she would not have it any other way.

And yet she holds a special place as the grande dame of the world's longest-running radio drama – don't call it a soap opera: "I hate the term. I prefer drama-serial." But she baulks at "institution", and squirms uncomfortably at the label "national treasure".

Anyway, even national treasures are not always treated with the respect they deserve. When I bring up the subject of the 60th anniversary, the temperature in the room drops a couple of degrees, and she suddenly appears rather cross: she isn't due back at the recording studio in Birmingham where the show is made until February, she says.

That the show's editor, Vanessa Whitburn, recently announced the anniversary storyline will "shake Ambridge to the core" is scant comfort. "I suppose they will have already recorded it by now because I haven't been in. So I don't know what the storyline is. Though even if I knew, I couldn't tell you – it's more than my life's worth!"

So she gets on with her life. It's hard not to go overboard with admiration for a nonagenarian who remains so unaffected by her fame on the one hand, and some of the awful things life has thrown at her on the other.

She has lost both a partner and a son in tragic circumstances.

Her husband, Roger, died in 2001 from a stroke after developing dementia. Within a few years she was reliving his decline in front of the microphones after the show's producers introduced an Alzheimer's plot line into the series.

Peggy Woolley's second husband, Jack, played by Arnold Peters, developed the illness and gradually disintegrated under the symptoms of the disease. As often in drama series, the situation was ramped-up; magnified and made more harrowing – in Jack's case there were scenes of violence – for dramatic effect. She admits she found acting them terribly difficult, if eventually rewarding.

"I felt [Alzheimer's] was something that should be brought out into the open – and of course the plight of the carers. But when I listened to some of the scenes at home, then I felt the poignancy of it, that's how it was..."

Her spirit was tested again by the death, in 2006, of her son David, who succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 55. A classical ballet dancer, he never recovered from the dual loss of his career, through back trouble, and his dance partner wife, who left him for a younger man.

She shows me a picture of David dressed as Dr Coppélius from Arthur Saint-Leon's Coppélia. "He lost everything all at once," said June. "He was never really happy again. To lose your career, your wife and your adored daughter... it's very sad."

Then, she was almost deprived of her mementoes of the two men when she was burgled; fortunately she was away when intruders stole much of her silver. "But they didn't get the silver picture frame," she points out, making the most of what must have been a frightening situation.

And this, it seems, is her philosophy: keeping calm and carrying on is innate to her. In contrast to so many of the, albeit younger, people in her industry; stoicism is the watchword. Ostentatious displays of emotion are simply not the done thing.

For six decades now, fitting her career around bringing up her two adopted children, she has shared Peggy's life with Archers fans. Despite spending so much of her life portraying Peggy, Ms Spencer is adamant they are very different. "Peggy's a nice old thing but she doesn't always see the funny side of things," she says. "She hasn't much of a sense of humour. Thank goodness I have – and at the most inappropriate moments sometimes," she giggles.

Born in Nottingham in 1919, an only child, her father was a salesman for Crawford's, the biscuit firm. Her mother was a "complex woman" who decided she was an invalid, leaving her young daughter June with no choice but to care for her.

She recalls being drawn to the theatre from a very early age. At first she wanted to be a dancer. By the time she was 12 she had settled on acting: she would produce plays with friends as a child in her back garden, giving herself the best parts, of course.

Her parents wouldn't let her sit the scholarship exams for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I don't think my mother wanted me to go into it. I think she thought I would fall in with a bad lot. When I did finally get in [to the theatre] she said: 'Oh well, I suppose it was inevitable'."

She joined an amateur dramatic society, where she studied for her London Guildhall School of Music and Drama certificate.

Her first paid work as a teenager was writing monologues as an after-dinner speaker. Much of it was comedy – some "racy odes and poems".

Still dreaming of being an actress when the Second World War broke out, she joined a local theatre company in 1942. That same year she married Roger. They first met in 1936, as 17-year-olds on holiday in Lincolnshire.

They met up from time to time while Roger studied engineering at Nottingham University. He finally proposed to her while on leave from his wartime posting in Ireland. His proposal was "not terribly romantic", she recalls. "He said: 'How do you feel about being married to a second-lieutenant?' I said: 'Well, I wouldn't mind if it was you.'"

A year later she won her first role at the BBC, playing a child in a programme about railways. By the time Roger returned from the war she was a successful radio actress, renting a flat close to Hyde Park in London.

When The Archers began in 1951 she played two roles – Peggy Perkins and Rita Flynn, who worked at the local bakery.

It was radio's heyday and sudden fame took her aback: "I remember going down to a gathering of all the Women's Institutes in Cornwall and I was mobbed. It was quite frightening." Nor did she expect the show to last: "It was a very small programme – very little pay and it was just another job. There was plenty of time to do other things. I was doing a lot of radio at the time. There were only about 10 or 12 of us, now there are over 60."

The show has changed in many other ways. Originally intended as a public service broadcast for farmers, the brief was simple: a country feature programme which made you feel you were eavesdropping on a farmer and his wife. Traditionalists have bemoaned the show's move to sensational plot lines and away from its roots.

She thinks this is unfair. "It has always been topical: we tackle difficult situations that come up in real life, and treat them without being sensational. I think people appreciate that. When they have the same sort of problems, they hear how the Archers coped, and I think it helps them."

From a soap actress this would be a horrible, blood-chilling cliché. From her, there is no doubt that it is 100 per cent genuine. She is of another time: humane and warm, even when the microphone is off and the camera is not looking. True, she frets slightly about her hair as her picture is being taken for the interview, but not as much as when she clucks with concern at the beginning and the end of the interview about the cold outside and my lack of gloves.

Finally, I can put it off no longer and have to ask a question that risks sounding, no matter how I couch it, like I'm being rude to a kind, elderly woman. After all these years and all she has been through, why does she continue with The Archers when, God knows, she has every excuse to give it up?

"Because I love it," she says. "They're my second family. I'm very lucky to be working at 91 and I'm going to carry on as long as they want me; as long as I can go on giving a decent performance."

The Archers is on BBC Radio 4 (92-95 FM and 198 LW) at 7.02pm Sunday to Friday, repeated at 2.02pm the next day (excluding Saturdays). An omnibus edition of the week's episodes is on Sunday at 10am

Curriculum Vitae

The only nonagenarian in the village

1919 Born in Nottingham to Rosalind and Billy. She was an only child.

1934 Joins an amateur dramatic society in Nottingham.

1938 Performs monologues (at Freemasons' dinners), her first paid work.

1942 Marries Roger, an engineer, in Nottingham. Is offered a job at a local theatre company.

1943 Cast in her first show: a 15-minute programme called Railways in Wartime.

1950 Records the first pilot episodes of The Archers. The series launches properly on 1 January 1951.

1953 Is temporarily replaced by Thelma Rogers when she leaves to raise a family. She and her husband adopt two children, David and Roz.

1972 Buys a house in Menorca. She still owns it.

1991 Is created an OBE.

2001 Roger dies after suffering from dementia. The Archers' Alzheimer's storyline begins a year later.

2006 Her son David dies from an alcohol-related illness, aged 55.

2010 Granted the Freedom of the City of London.

2010 Is a guest on Desert Island Discs.