Hang out the Ambridge bunting and deck the village hall for a very happy 100th birthday to June Spencer, who plays matriarch Peggy Woolley in The Archers, and has done so from the very beginning. That was nearly 70 years ago, and it makes her quite possibly the soap actress who has spent the longest amount of time playing a single character in the world. She said this week she has no plans to retire.
Archers fans know her as the strait-laced, loyal and opinionated mother of Tony, Lilian and Jennifer, widow of Jack Archer and Jack Woolley. A highly principled woman, Peggy – who, at a sprightly 95, is five years younger than the actress who plays her – is the moral backbone of her family. Her major storylines across the decades have tackled a turbulent relationship with her first husband, the hard-drinking and gambling Jack Archer, and most memorably, the tremendously difficult experience of caring for her beloved second husband while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
But outside Ambridge, Spencer’s life has had dramas of its own. She appeared on Desert Island Discs 10 years ago to mark her 90th birthday in one of the best episodes of the Kirsty Young era, because Spencer is an open, sharp and funny woman, as well as unflinchingly honest.
Born shortly after the end of the First World War, she was an only child who was bitten by the performance bug early on, recruited by a friend of her father’s to write comic monologues and entertainments for local Masonic dinners.
She adored her father and had a loving but difficult relationship with her mother, who “declared herself an invalid at 40” and then demanded constant care, to the extent that Spencer had to leave school early to look after her full-time, despite having nothing medically wrong with her and going on to live until she was 94.
After Spencer’s parents refused to countenance her auditioning for Rada, her earliest roles all came through connections, friends of friends and the winning of talent competitions. From early on she had an entrepreneurial streak and to this day, as she wrote in her autobiography, The Road to Ambridge, she has never needed an agent.
She auditioned successfully for the BBC revue in 1939, but war broke out before she could begin work, and the department closed. The Nazis marched into Paris on Spencer’s 21st birthday and she had a party the same day for all of her friends, making sure to dance with all of the boys in turn as she knew it might the last time she would see them before they joined the forces. One of the boys was Roger Brocksom, who “somehow always seemed to be around”, and whom she would go on to marry in 1942.
Spencer had a war job in Nottingham City Treasurers Office and continued acting in weekly rep at the Little Theatre in Nottingham for the first part of the war, and then worked as a telephone operator and performed in Voluntary Entertainment for the armed forces until the BBC finally took her on in 1943, where she worked on Children’s Hour.
After VE day she moved to London and began full-time broadcasting for the BBC, acting in a wide range of drama serials and verse plays before The Archers began. She wrote in her autobiography that it was a very glamorous time to be working at the BBC, and she and her colleagues were famous and much in demand to open fetes. Once she saw a scruffy and nervous-looking “down-and-out” chap in the studio, who turned out to be Dylan Thomas.
Along with her friend Norman Painting, Spencer was one of the seven original cast members assembled for the pilot of The Archers in 1950 and was at the fateful production meeting in which it was decided that “this is not a drama production – the characters are to be real-life people overheard”. She was one of the highest paid performers, on £12 for six episodes.
By 1967, it was clear that the “real-life” feel of the programme was working well when Spencer was sent several concerned letters from listeners during a storyline about Peggy’s daughter’s secret pregnancy, one of which read:
“I think you ought to know that your daughter Jennifer is going to have a baby. Only three people know. The vicar, the doctor and your daughter Lilian. Why don’t you know? Don’t you listen to the programme?”
Spencer had a happy, companionable marriage with Brocksom, and together they adopted two children. She has a continuing excellent relationship with her daughter, though tragedy befell her late son, a dancer who died at the age of 55 after struggling with alcohol.
Spencer has said that, apart from a shared love of gardens and cats, she is very different from her on-air character: “I don’t think Peggy has a sense of humour, and I hope I have... I think funny things happen to Peggy, but she doesn’t tend to see the funny side,” she told Kirsty Young. In her autobiography, Spencer writes, “Age does strange things to our bodies. Everything is still there, just much lower down.”
But Peggy and Spencer did share one significant life experience. Before Peggy found herself caring for Jack Woolley after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Spencer had already cared for her own husband when he was suffering from the same disease until his death. Her performance during this storyline was one of the most memorable and poignant in the history of the programme, perhaps because the pain and duty at the heart of it were drawn from real life. Spencer is a patron of Alzheimer’s Research UK.
As well as continuing to work, Spencer is part of a scrabble club and takes Spanish conversation classes. Her Desert Island Discs luxury item was a scrabble set.
This week, Spencer’s colleague in The Archers, Charles Collingwood (who plays Peggy’s son-in-law, Brian Aldridge), said that she "should be made a dame.” He told the Radio Times that "I can't believe there's anyone else in the world of entertainment still working as a professional performer at the age of 100.”
His calls were echoed by Carole Boyd, who plays Lynda Snell, saying that age has “not withered her and I don't think it ever will”, and by Sunny Ormonde, who plays Peggy’s daughter Lilian: "I admire her so much. I know she already has her OBE and CBE, but I'm hoping she might be made a dame. If anyone deserves it, it's June."
The campaign starts here.