Richard Wortley:
Alick Rowe, Tom Mallin, Nigel Baldwin and The Archers

A Modest Proposal

I cast Norman Rodway reading a shortened version (Stuart Griffiths) of Jonathan Swift’s dark satire solving the Irish famine by eating Catholic babies. An infuriated car listener was so disgusted she pulled into a lay-by to recover. She hoped to bring us to court until she discovered this Dean of St Patrick’s, Dublin had written it in 1724; it had never been out of print and continues on many a school syllabus.

Alick Rowe has a long CV in the media. Our radio time together took in such fun spoofs as Jeux Sans Frontiers milarkies, topical then, and a one legged football manager saving his team as a substitute goal keeper in a crisis. Great multi-mix crowd noises. This plot has retrospective resonance as I now find myself in a one and a half leg situation.

The six plays by Tom Mallin (I have referred to his son) included ‘Halt! Who Goes There?’ his last. He was also a painter and I ‘inherited’ his writing from a BBC colleague who put us together when he (Guy Vaesen) left to become dramaturg at the National Theatre in London.

In the play before this one, Tom gave us the memorable image of an exasperated country vicar netting the bullfinches destroying his strawberry beds and cutting their heads off with garden shears.

‘Halt! Who Goes There?’ was a comedy set in a cancer ward; Tom rang me up after his own hospital checkup “I think I’ve had it Richard”. Brave, brave man, he died of cancer aged fifty.

Nigel Baldwin has a special gift of plot-led storytelling and a passion for alternative medicine. David Marshall (eight plays with me) fell into the glib ‘black comedy’ category but he found another bullseye title with ‘Squiffy In The Heat’ about a package tour to Greece.

A journalist, Nigel Lewis, produced another Greek Island setting, his first radio play. He ‘introduced’ me to the weird sound of the scops owl and I introduced him to my obsessive love of cicadas for Mediterranean-Aegean summers.

Steve May a wide ranging writer and close friend boldly blew his own trumpet in ‘A Vanity Case’. A study of two brothers coping with the death of their mother and clearing out her belongings after the funeral. The trumpet is the voice of one brother, sonorous Bill Wallace the voice of the other.

In yet another island setting ‘The Governor’, Steve transported us to the world of descendants from those who mutinied on The Bounty becoming controlled by a highly ambivalent character, deliciously acted by Geoffrey Whitehead.

I claim a radio first (circa 1974) recreating live radio drama, lapsed fifteen years before. As a friendly gimmick, we hedged our bets by making the play a three-hander (forty-five minutes long). One of the three being Brian Hewlitt, an actor whom on a previous occasion had told me riveting tales of his trips to observe silver-backed gorillas.

He later disappeared to a more urban jungle - yes, a resident character in ‘The Archers’ for over twenty-five years.

Our radio ‘first night’ produced flowers and telegrams and no errors on air. In other words, it was repeated without any edits and by some miracle of timing worthy of the late and the great Alistair Cooke, I did not have to reproduce my trusty hand signals for speed up or slow down.

The fifty-two year old phenomenon - ‘The Archers’ I mean - is much chartered territory as the longest running soap opera in Europe. It has its own wide fan base and may seem to some the only form of radio drama.

My own life time in radio gives me overlapping reference points to a long list of ‘Ambridge’ talent, including, Anno Domini, the dear departed (Hayden Jones and Jack May for example).

My random team in no particular order includes Judy Bennett, Edward Kelsey, Moir Lesley, Graham Seed, Mary Wimbush, Patricia Gallimore, Carole Boyd, Margot Boyd (no relation), Heather Bell, her ‘character’ successor Rosalind Adams, Eric Allen, Graham Blockey, Tina Gray, Andrew Wincott and Hugh Dickson.

Andrew Wincott got into the ‘Archer Hall of Fame’ as one half of their first gay kiss (though in previous story lines a French chef got close to it) and Hugh Dickson poignantly ‘died’ - a heart attack on the telephone, itself a late entry into ‘Archerland’.

That stalwart ‘rolling’ cast should never feel overwhelmed by television soaps. After all ‘ the everyday story of country folk’ has been subsidising the esoteric dreams of such as myself! So thank you ‘Archers’, thank you Vanessa Whitburn (Editor Supremo) who I remember as my studio manager enthusiastically pretending to be horses hooves thumping the top of Beecher’s Brook.

I interviewed the actress who, as Grace Archer, died in the notoriously iconic stables fire at Grey Gables which planned to clash with the opening night of ITV, a clever ploy though it had indeed burned her career.

I waved Judy Bennett off to her Birmingham audition to be a twelve year old girl called Schula. Judy had been very successfully playing boys with unbroken voices for us in London. “Should I give it a go Richard?” She has been essaying Schula for thirty-five years.

I overheard ‘Tom Forrest’ in a London pub. The actor, a self taught countryman, put Borsetshire to shame. I saw Norman Painting at a book launch.

I had a recent reunion with the scrumptious Carole Boyd. Her mellifluous, intelligent voice was narrating Gustav Flaubert in an extract from ‘Madame Bovary’. I was supervising a new producer on her drama course. In Carole’s tone there was not a trace of Linda Snell to be found.

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