The Archers celebrates its 60th birthday

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The world's longest-running serial drama, Radio 4's The Archers, will celebrate 60 years on air on 2 January 2011.

David Sillito reports from the BBC studios in Birmingham, where the programme is recorded.

The sound of the cattle pens is really an old metal ironing board being opened and closed.

What sounds like walking across grass is really actors walking on a small pile of audio tape.

And the bar at The Bull public house is a wooden box with a flap.

For millions, The Archers is a part of everyday life. Yet only one of the current cast members was there at the beginning in January 1951.

Now 91, June Spencer started out on a three-month contract playing both Peggy Archer and Rita Flynn, the Irish former landgirl who had stayed in the village.

When the show began, Peggy was pregnant and trapped in a difficult marriage. Yet she knew she had to see it through because her duty was to her family.

Sixty years on, Peggy still puts family first. Indeed, Spencer's character was recently heard giving some stern words of advice to her wayward granddaughter Kate.

"Stephen Fry picked that up," the actress laughs. "He's a tremendous fan and put out on his tweet, 'You don't mess with Peggy - you just don't.'"

Image caption,
Episodes of The Archers are recorded at the BBC Mail Box in Birmingham

In the early days, though, working on the show was nothing more than "an interesting little job". "That's all it was," she insists.

Conceived as a means to introduce listeners to rural ways and worries, the programme opened with Peggy Perkins arriving in Ambridge to marry Jack Archer and learn the ways of the country.

In one episode she learned how to wash eggs. In another, she discovered that the correct way to pluck a chicken was "to wet it first".

Even today there is still an agricultural story editor who has guided the show's knowledge of a world that has gone from Shire horses to anaerobic digesters.

Peggy's first husband Jack drank too much. Her second, Jack Woolley, has Alzheimer's - a storyline that reflects Spencer's own life and her husband Roger's struggle with the condition.

"It is something very close to my heart," she says. "I could understand just how Peggy felt when she had to say goodbye to him that awful wet day and put him in to a home."

What she did not expect was to be still in Ambridge 60 years on. "If someone had told me 'You'll be still playing Peggy at 91', I'd have said, 'What?'" she exclaims.

"It is quite an achievement," she continues. "I'm very proud of it."

Much as Spencer likes her character, though, she does "wish she had more of a sense of humour. Funny things happen to Peggy, but she never sees the funny side of life."

Mary Cutler has been writing The Archers' for more than 30 years and has written the allegedly tumultuous anniversary episode that will go out on 2 January.

Compared to Spencer, though, she is something of a newcomer.

"I had some advice early on in my writing career," she recalls. "It was, 'You can do anything in Ambridge so long as for the next scene you are on top of Lakey Hill and can hear the birdsong.'

"Even at the beginning it was quite racy," she adds, while conceding that back then "there were long chunks of dialogue".

"Listening back I can't believe how slow it was," the scriptwriter says. "It's far more fast-paced now."

It is understood that the 60th anniversary episode will "shake Ambridge to the core". Cutler, though, is giving absolutely nothing away.

"You'll have to tune in like everyone else," she laughs.

Then again, after so many years there is surely little that has not already happened in this "everyday tale of country folk."

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