Two women, ages 94 and 83, completely own The Archers

Plus: The first black female chaplain to the Queen and to the Speaker, who shuttles between Westminster and Hackney

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

You might think the main storyline in The Archers is all about Helen’s affair with dastardly Rob. (What does she see in him? It’s so obvious he’s a mean-spirited control freak.) Or the new ‘voice’ for Tony, as David Troughton takes over from Colin Skipp, who has played the part for more than 40 years. But actually the real drama in the past fortnight has been swept along by the 94-year-old actress who plays Peggy Woolley and by her younger sidekick Jill Archer played by the 83-year-old Patricia Greene. Together they’ve provided a masterclass on how to act on air, with their distinctive voices, precisely calibrated characters and ability to make us believe in them.

June Spencer has knocked the socks of the younger members of the cast with her superb portrayal of the cool, crisp, ever-so-canny Peggy. It’s been hard to believe her real age as day-by-day she has dealt with the fall-out from her fictional husband’s death. One heart-stopping scene followed another as she put up with, but never gave in to, the malign machinations of her stepdaughter from hell, culminating in Sunday’s coup de grâce as she gathered the family for a tea party. Her timing was absolutely flawless, cranking up the tension as her offspring waited to hear who would be the chief beneficiaries of her lifetime of hard-nosed business zeal.

June Spencer Photo: Getty

June Spencer Photo: Getty

What’s great about Peggy is that she’s a woman of the old school, but that does not mean she’s ever been a downtrodden wife, weak-minded, dependent, incapable of making decisions. Not a bit of it. Peggy’s still as sharp as a cleaver, as is her ‘voice’, June Spencer, who carries along with her that sense of strong, certain self-belief, anchored in firm values and a willingness to suffer. You’d never catch Peggy baking a cake, or making jam (unlike Jill Archer, who’s an ace baker and a fearless beekeeper, too) — that would be far too domestic for her businesslike mind. She has been known to get it wrong sometimes (refusing to go to church when a female vicar was appointed, for example), but, with time, she has usually retreated from her position. Never given in, oh no; just accepted what must be.

Jill Archer, as created by Patricia Greene, is less steely than Peggy, a bit scatty and (unlike Peggy) definitely not to be relied on for advice on where to put your money, but she’s no less resilient, capable and sturdy. They were all (the four of them, real and unreal) born long before feminism had re-emerged in its postwar, bra-burning, pill-wielding guise but they put many so-called modern women to shame with their strength of purpose, and self-belief.

There’ll be no Oscars, Baftas or Golden Globes for June and Patricia but for sheer stamina and for their skill at the microphone we should raise a glass to them both as grandes dames of the airwaves. They were groundbreakers in the 1950s. On Desert Island Discs this week Kirsty Young’s guest was another remarkable woman. The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin was one of the first women to be ordained in the Church of England in 1994 and she’s now the first black woman to be appointed as a chaplain to the Queen and to the Speaker of the House of Commons. She also looks after two parishes in Hackney in the East End of London, taking her not far from Westminster but a huge distance in terms of lifestyle and life opportunities. How does she combine the two such different ministries?

‘You have to speak to them in the context they are in,’ she says, admitting that she does not go into patois when she’s preaching in one of Her Majesty’s chapels. Rose and her sister were brought up in Jamaica. They never really knew their mother, who left for London when she was two, and when she did return to the Caribbean brought with her five children from her English husband. ‘It didn’t go great,’ Rose recalls. But she insists, ‘I’m not a victim. I’m a well-rounded human being and I give God thanks for it.’

That’s what makes her so impressive. Her story is a classic tale of immigration, yet she now ministers to 650 MPs who are debating these immigration issues, both for and against. How did she cope with the immense outcry that greeted her appointment in 2010 as a woman and a woman of colour of immigrant parents? She was disturbed by it, but not deterred. ‘You have to respond with generosity and love,’ she says, choosing for her next piece of music, ‘Zadok the Priest’, as if to outwit her critics.

Once again it was refreshing to hear such a strong-minded woman talking on air without an axe to grind. She’s no pussy-cat, that’s for sure, but she’s also full of fun and common sense. When asked about female bishops she very sensibly refused to be drawn, relying instead on her choice of music to do the talking for her. I wonder whether she takes her iPod into the Palace.

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