The Archers, an everyday story of . . . randy folk? Passion is certainly rampant in dear old Ambridge. And, golly, it’s a pillar of the community causing it. Chris Arnot meets the woman who’s adding spice to Britain’s longest-running soap
We Archers fans know all about Brian. Brian’s the J R Ewing of Ambridge. The
one who boasts about the size of his combine. The one who had a fling with
Caroline and tried to exercise droit du seigneur over Betty Tucker.
He hasn’t been quite the same since he was kicked by a mad cow. Which might
explain why he’s never made a play for Caroline’s best friend, Shula. Not that
he’d get much of a look-in right now. ‘Saint Shula’, as she was known until
recently among users of the Archers’ Internet website, spent the build-up to her
40th birthday enjoying a long-delayed burst of libido. First she bedded the
village vet, then the village doctor. Both are more youthful suitors than Brian.
‘I don’t think Shula would go for the J R type, somehow,’ says actress Judy
Bennett, who ought to know. Shula has been her alter ego for 27 years. And for
all but five of them she has been the wife of Brian. Not Brian the character,
but the actor who plays him, Charles Collingwood.
They share a handsome Edwardian villa in north London and sometime tomorrow
morning two identical envelopes from BBC Radio 4 should land on their doormat.
Shula – sorry, Judy – could be forgiven for ripping open the next month’s script
with trembling fingers. She can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen to
her. As listeners will hear in a dramatic confrontation with Alistair, the
jilted vet, on Friday evening, her whole future in Ambridge hangs in the
‘Nobody has said anything to me,’ she says, eyes twinkling over a forkful of
goat’s cheese salad. ‘We actors are contracted per episode. There’d be nothing I
could do about it if they wanted to exile Shula to Manchester.’ The cafe we are
in is almost as deserted as one imagines the public bar of the Bull in Ambridge
to be most lunchtimes. But how are the bored waiters to know that this vivacious
middle-aged woman is currently the femme fatale of Britain’s longest-running
soap opera? Radio stars pass amongst us unnoticed. ‘And that suits me fine,’
The Archers takes just six days out of her working month. Elsewhere, she
does voice-overs and transfers books from the written page to cassette. ‘I
recently did one of Edwina Currie’s,’ she confides.
Not one of her political bonk-busters? ‘No, her semi-autobiography, She’s
Leaving Home. Like me, she comes from Liverpool. My father was a captain in the
Merchant Navy, but he died when I was baby.’ He bequeathed his daughter an
abiding love of the sea. She and Collingwood have a caravan and beach-hut on the
Sussex coast, and she likes nothing better than to go body-surfing in late
October when nobody else would venture in without a rubber suit. ‘I’m very
warm-blooded,’ she says.
She’s played Shula since the character was 12 and admits to being ‘a touch
older’ than Shula. How much older she won’t say, but the eldest of her three
children is 31 and a deputy head teacher. ‘It was a difficult birth,’ she says,
‘and I remember looking on the doctor who delivered him as a saint.’ She adds
with a shy smile: ‘I was very young at the time.’ Rather different from Shula: a
mature widow, a pillar of the community, a church warden no less, who has prised
Doc Locke away from one of her best friends. The fall-out from their grand
passion continues to undermine her stature as a pivotal figure in a small
community. The old certainties in Ambridge are being put under strain as never
‘If the storyline wasn’t credible, I wouldn’t be enjoying playing the part
half so much,’ says Bennett. ‘We only get two and a half hours to rehearse and
record each episode. You’ve got to take it seriously and believe in what you
do.’ As an accomplished radio actress, she relishes having the time to convey
complex emotions. One scene with the doctor lasted all of six minutes. That’s
the scene after they’d slept together. No orgasmic gasps in The Archers, thank
you very much. ‘That would be quite unnecessary at seven in the evening,’ she
says, firmly. ‘We had a bed in the studio but we both kept our feet on the
floor, like they did in the old movies.
‘It was wonderful having that much time because you could get a real flow to
the acting. It just wouldn’t happen in any other soap. And the point about The
Archers is that the storylines are character-led. You’re not tagging a false
story on to someone it just couldn’t happen to.’ Y’ounger listeners may be
surprised to learn that Shula was quite a girl in her younger days. One evening
in 1977, she was romping in a cornfield with a reporter called Simon Parker from
the Borchester Echo. Then there was the mysterious job in Bangkok after Nick
Wearing had abandoned her on an overland trip to Calcutta. She came home to
Brookfield, eventually, looking painfully thin but able to blow a perfect smoke
By 1994, though, she was boxed into a cosy marriage with decent-but-boring
Mark Hebden. Archers’ editor Vanessa Whitburn sought a dramatic solution by
having Mark despatched in a car crash. ‘Shula’s a popular character,’ Whitburn
told me at the time, ‘and this enables us to propel her forward.’ Four years on,
after a bruising dalliance with the dastardly Simon Pemberton, the propulsion of
Shula is gathering speed. ‘She hasn’t exactly leapt into bed with Alistair and
Richard,’ says Bennett, defensively. ‘It took ages.’ Hundreds of letters,
phone-calls and e-mails have flooded into the Archers’ office at BBC Pebble Mill
– among them some ‘Disgusteds’ and some committed Christians, genuinely
concerned by the fall from grace of Saint Shula.
Could it be that Judy Bennett’s character is about to take a dip in the
popularity polls? Next month, she and hubby Charles will hit the road together
in the latest instalment of Laughter And Intrigue, their two-person stage show.
‘We do a few readings and tell anecdotes about our life together, in Ambridge
and outside,’ says Bennett. ‘Charles usually gets some good-natured booing and
hissing when he takes to the stage.’ This time he might not be the only one.
Laughter and intrigue will be at Boston, Lincs, on September 20, Stockport
on September 25 and Lichfield on September 27. For details and future dates,
contact Clive Conways Associates on 01865-514830.