In Praise of Peggy: tea with June Spencer, still leading The Archers on BBC Radio 4 at the age of 102

Extraordinary to hear June Spencer leading a storyline on The Archers so beautifully at the age of 102. She started playing Peggy Archer back in 1950. I visited her at home a few years back for The Telegraph. What a life.

June Spencer, courtesy of the BBC

She made me cry long before we ever met. I was listening to June Spencer move around the living room, with only the cat for company, on the day her husband died.

She put a record on the player, the song they used to share: Love is the Sweetest Thing, sung on crackling vinyl by Al Bowlly. The tune the sweethearts danced to at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, such a long time ago, before the beginning of the dementia that stole him away. As the music played, she spoke softly. “Goodbye, Jack. Goodbye, my darling.”

Tears came to my eyes. They were shared by many others who overheard this intimate moment on the radio, while cooking the dinner, driving the car or walking the dogs with headphones on. We felt as if we shared the loss and sorrow of a friend.

It wasn’t strictly true, of course. June Spenceris an actor who plays a part. She is the longest-serving actor in the world’s longest-running drama serial, having played Peggy Woolley in The Archers since the pilot episode in 1950.

You may not like the show – it is a bit like Marmite – but you have to admire the longevity of a 94-year-old (as written in 2014) who has been working for the BBC since 1943 and is still playing a leading character in a flagship drama.

The elegant lady in a pink sweater and scarf who comes to the door of her bungalow in Surrey is exactly as some of us imagine Peggy Woolley to be, with perfectly set white hair and a steely glint in the eye. But this is no ordinary confusion between an actor and her part. She was mourning a fictional husband in that scene, but real life and drama have become woven together in her life over the last decade in the most poignant way, and particularly in recent weeks.

First, her real husband, Roger, an engineer, succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. “He had it for five years. It was the slow-acting kind and he died after a stroke in 2001,” she says. “We were spared the really awful part.”

Those were hard times, though. And within a year of her loss, it was suggested that her Archers husband, Jack Woolley, should begin to experience the same symptoms. “I said: ‘I’m all for it, this needs to be brought before the public.’

It used to be swept under the carpet.”

Still, it was demanding for her to play scenes so close to life. Then the actor playing Jack also began to show signs of dementia. Events in The Archers happen in real time, and it took nine years for Jack to slide from forgetfulness into violent, angry behaviour so difficult that he had to be cared for in a home. Then came the long silence before death. Over the same period, the actor Arnold Peters was also taken by dementia and died last year. “That was so ironic,” she says. “Poor Arnold.”

After all this, it was painfully close to the bone when Peggy told her daughter in the drama last week: “Seeing Jack decline like he did, disappear in front of my eyes, it was awful… but it’s meant I had a lot of time to get used to the idea of losing him. Because really I lost him a long time ago.”

The result of this mingling of fact and fiction over the years has been an exploration of the reality of Alzheimer’s disease in The Archers that the medical experts say has no equal in drama. Simon Lovestone, professor of Old Age Psychiatry at King’s College London, describes it as “one of the most accurate, sensitive, moving and just true portrayals of dementia I have ever encountered”.

“It is so important that we see this illness for what it is – a terrible and common disease that robs people of their memories, personalities, loved ones and independence. Yet it is also one that hundreds of thousands of people cope with, with love, with humour, with care. As did Jack and Peggy.”

After shedding a tear for Peggy himself, he wrote an article describing how patients and their families had talked about the characters over the years. “It has been clear to me that their work has touched a nerve in many and their journey together through this illness has helped many as they hear their own experience reflected on the radio. A trouble shared, perhaps.”

Alzheimer’s is the most common kind of dementia, which directly affects 800,000 people in Britain but touches the lives of millions around them. It causes loss of brain function, and the symptoms include memory loss, confusion and problems with speech. It is a terminal condition, and one in three people over 65 will die with dementia.

June Spencer says Roger began to show signs in the mid-Nineties, a few years after their golden wedding anniversary. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint when it starts,” she says. “I became aware that something wasn’t right when he kept asking me the same question over and over again. That got worse and worse.”

She took over the running of the household but tried to keep Roger informed. “I went into great detail to explain something and two minutes later he said: ‘Now, didn’t you say something about so-and-so?’ I said: ‘I’ve just told you that.’ He said: ‘Well, tell me again.’ That really was…”

Her voice trails off, and the look on her face gives some sense of the desolation she must have felt at times. “I said: ‘I can’t tell you again.’ He realised, I think. Somehow, he stopped asking so many questions after that.”

Did either of them have an idea of what lay ahead? “Yes. His mother was the same, so I realised what we were in for. When I went away to Birmingham to record The Archers, I would write on the back of a used script, in very big black writing, where I was and when I was coming back, where his lunch was, everything. As soon as I finished work,

I would go and ring him up. But he got more and more dependent on me, until I couldn’t leave him.”

They did live together until the end. “My son and daughter said: ‘Will you put Dad in a home?’ I said: ‘Not until he doesn’t know who I am.’”

Mercifully, it didn’t come to that. “I think God was very good to us, quite frankly. I was over 80 and worried about how I was going to look after him.” They were both in the bungalow on the day he died. “I found him. He had gone. It is a terrible shock, of course, but when it has been expected, you know, you are a bit stoical about it.”

However, she says: “I was very glad nobody was with me that night. I howled like an animal. I didn’t cry. I howled.”

She understood it then when her character Peggy wanted to be alone, with thoughts of Jack. As an actor, she knew the scene would have a powerful effect on listeners. “We read it through before the recording in the green room, where the programme is timed. When it came to the monologue, with everybody sitting around, I thought: ‘I’m going to do this properly.’ So I did it. Full on. At the end there was complete silence. I looked at Sean [O’Connor, who runs the show] and he was wiping his eyes. So was the actress who plays Helen. I thought: ‘Right. Good.’”

Unusually, the song was allowed to play on and close the show in place of the theme tune, with Al Bowlly singing “This is the tale that will never tire, this is the song without end…”.

Many listeners were brought to tears. They said so on Facebook and on Twitter. There is an intimacy in radio that encourages the listener to feel close to the character, particularly when they have grown together over time. Some knew about June Spencer’s personal history and felt for her. Did she, I wonder, share Peggy’s feeling that her husband had left long before he died?

“Not really, because Roger was still able to communicate with me. He couldn’t remember anything, he couldn’t read because he couldn’t remember the sentence before. He wasn’t the old Roger, of course – the jolly, fun-loving Roger – but we were still connected. We were still close.”

They made a handsome couple when they were married in 1942. The following year, she won the part of a 12-year-old in a BBC programme about railways. “Hardly an epic,” she says, smiling. She went on to appear in Dick Barton and Mrs Dale’s Diary. “Those are what people remember, not the great parts I played in classic serials,” she says, with a little chuckle.

The Archers began with particular aspirations. “They said: ‘This is not a drama. This is real life overheard.’” Peggy was an East End girl adrift in the countryside who endured a difficult first marriage. But she found happiness late in life with Jack Woolley, a self-made man whose wealth and generosity made him a respected village elder, before his decline.

Mary Cutler, who has written for The Archers for 35 years, says: “The dramatic art form we work in is probably the only one that could really do justice to Alzheimer’s because it is such a long decline. You can only see that if you’ve got years and years, as we have, to do it subtly and gently.”

Medical understanding of the disease has improved greatly since the storyline began, says Prof Lovestone. He is researching tests to identity dementia in the early stages, so that drugs can be developed to hold back the symptoms. “If you could do it effectively, you could prevent dementia. There is a real possibility of that within the next 10 years. That is exciting.”

Attitudes have also changed enormously over the last 10 years. “We’ve come out of a period when Alzheimer’s disease was very much a taboo subject, very difficult to talk about and poorly recognised by doctors, who were poorly informed,” he says. “Now dementia has very wide public visibility.”

The Archers has played a part in that. “The personal experience that June Spencer has brought to this has been exceptional.”

It must have demanded a great deal of her, surely? “Yes, I suppose so,” she says, “but once I’m in Peggy’s shell, as it were, I disappear. I don’t think about it. Except sometimes when I am listening at home.”

Then the memories come back. It was tough, too, when her friend Arnold Peters began to display the signs. “We would perhaps have lunch together and I would have to say: ‘You like that, don’t you? Why don’t you have it?’ We didn’t say anything, but we could all see it.”

The last time they worked together was in November 2011. “I went with a crew to where he was living with his wife in this retirement home and we recorded a couple of scenes there. He was a complete pro and that came up to the surface. Then five or six months later he took a bad turn for the worse and after that he couldn’t do anything.”

Sean O’Connor took over as editor of The Archers last year, a few months after the death of Peters, and says June urged him to bring the story to a close. “We all wanted to make it very dignified and very much about the way her generation responds to grief and difficult things in their lives, which is with a certain stoic dignity,” he says. “That is both the character and it is June.”

She is, however, much franker and funnier than Peggy. “I hope they don’t rest me for two months again like they did last year,” she says. “At my age, you can’t afford to be out for two months, there may not be any more! My chiropodist, the other day, busy on my feet, said: ‘Have you recorded your death scene?’ I said: ‘No!’ He said: ‘What will they do when you die?’ As if it’s going to be next week! I said: ‘Oh, they’ll cope.’”

All those who shed a tear for Peggy will hope that day is a long way off yet. As will those who have found their own experiences mirrored, as she has portrayed a woman caring for a man with dementia, somehow finding within herself the necessary love, patience and endurance.

As the song says, “This is the song without end …”

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Peggy: tea with June Spencer, still leading The Archers on BBC Radio 4 at the age of 102

  1. A very nice and touching story. There’s a hope for a cure for this horrible disease which both my parents had. I’d love to be working (acting) at over one hundred like June Spencer. I’m young: seventy-four..

  2. I’m not an Archers fan, but my wife was at the time so I did hear bits of it. Very powerful. And it’s something that touches most of us at some point, as you say. One of those ghastly things we really could do with a cure for.

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