When Grace Archer perished in a stable fire in 1955, millions of radio listeners across Britain were distraught and angry – so much so that the character’s shocking death made front-page news and the BBC’s switchboard was jammed with irate callers.
Ever since, rumours have circulated about why the show’s producers decided to kill off the popular character from its (now long-running) rural-set radio soap The Archers. Some have suggested it was because of a pay dispute, while others believed the storyline was a move to sabotage the first night of ITV, which launched on the same day, 60 years ago.
Now, after more than half a century, the actress who played the character has broken her silence, claiming she was written out of the show because she demanded the same pay as her male colleagues.
The 90-year-old Ysanne Churchman, who has until now refused to speak about the truth surrounding the killing off of Grace Archer, described it as “victimisation”.
“So that was how it happened,” Churchman said following a BBC Radio 4 broadcast the play Dead Girls Tell No Tales, which dramatised her exit from the programme after clashes with The Archers’ creator Godfrey Baseley.
“How I, or rather Grace, came to die: victimisation because I had been to Equity to get my fees put right.” Baseley, who died in 1997, called Churchman “a troublemaker” and an “agitator”.
The death of Grace Archer lead to what Churchman described as “claims and counter-claims” and “mythmaking” around the death.
“Don’t feel too sorry for me. In some ways, Godfrey Baseley may even have done me a favour,” Churchman added after the radio play was broadcast. The title referred to Churchman’s initial response when asked why the character was killed off.
She did not sound too bitter all these years on. “On the very night Grace died, ITV started and immediately needed people with exactly my experience to voice commercials so I was able to make a good living from voiceovers for years,” she said. She even sent ITV’s chairman a card from Grace Archer to congratulate him on the broadcaster’s 50th anniversary in 2005.
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She added: “I hope he appreciated the joke, because I have sent another one this year too.”
The BBC said at the time that The Archers had too many characters and it needed to get rid of one. Yet H Rooney Pelletier, controller of the BBC Light Programme, had written a memo calling for a violent death in The Archers earlier that year, “timed, if possible, to diminish interest in the opening of commercial television in London”.
The Archers, “an everyday story of country folk”, is the world’s longest-running radio soap opera, debuting in May 1950. Featured cameos have ranged from Dame Judi Dench to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Bradley Wiggins.
Churchman later made several returns to The Archers to play two characters after Baseley had retired from radio, first in the role of policeman’s wife Barbara Drury and later as Mary Pound.
“They were very different parts and a world away from Grace but I’ve never forgotten her or the night of the 22nd of September 60 years ago,” she said. “The legend of Grace will live on and, I must say, I really feel quite proud to have been part of it.”
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