03 April 2009

The '80s Archers Part 1: Mrs Antrobus And A Decade Of Change...

Mrs Marjorie Antrobus, played by Margot Boyd from 1984-2004.


When I mentioned to Pete, an old pal of mine, that I was going to be writing about the BBC radio serial
The Archers on '80s Actual, he raised his eyebrows in surprise: surely, he suggested, the cutting edge elements of the decade - things such as Sir Alec Jeffreys discovering DNA fingerprinting in 1984, Sir Tim Berners-Lee inventing the World Wide Web in 1989, the Apple Mac, brick mobile phones, massive shoulder pads, Spitting Image, Greenham Common, and yuppies - were of far more interest than a radio programme which had first been given a trial run in 1950, and become a nightly regular in 1951?

I disagree. The 1980s were a pivotal and fascinating time for the Ambridge saga. And besides, I'd already written about the Apple Mac, etc!

Over in Borsetshire, the 1980s saw the end of some much-loved long running characters: Doris Archer (Gwen Berryman), Dan Archer (Frank Middlemass), Aunt Laura Archer (Betty McDowall), Jethro Larkin (George Hart), Polly Perks (Hilary Newcombe) and Walter Gabriel (Chris Gittens) all died.

A sad time indeed. But newcomers breezed in and established characters made new moves.

The 1980s saw Nelson Gabriel (Jack May) opening his now legendary wine bar; Sid Perks (Alan Devereux) finding a second wife in Kathy (Hedli Niklaus); Mark Hebden
(Richard Derrington), soon to be Mr Shula Archer, putting in his first appearance; Nigel Pargetter (Graham Seed) arriving on the scene, dressed as a gorilla - and cooing "Oh, Shulie!" to the aforementioned Shula Archer (Judy Bennett); Eddie Grundy (Trevor Harrison) marrying Clarrie Larkin (Fiona Mathieson); Bert Fry (Roger Hume) - he of the famous rythming couplets - arriving and becoming an employee at Brookfield; the deliciously awful Lynda Snell (Carole Boyd) blasting in from Sunningdale to take over Ambridge Hall (for those of us who remembered Carole Boyd as the downtrodden, down-to-earth Shirley Edwards in the BBC Radio 2 saga Waggoners' Walk, Lynda Snell came as something of a surprise!); and Ruth Pritchard (Felicity Finch) becoming the latest incomer to the Archer clan, as David's wife.

It would have seemed absolutely impossible to imagine Ambridge without Doris, Dan and Walter at the start of 1980 - but in 1989, although each of these original Archers characters had sadly departed, Ambridge was still thriving - as full of colourful characters as ever, and perhaps a little more lively.

We missed the departed very much indeed, but The Archers in no way became a mournful whinge. Nor did it descend into a creaky old age.

The '80s incomers were a terrific crowd - Ruth Pritchard, with her glorious English regional accent, was a breath of fresh air to the rather poshly-spoken Archer clan; Lynda Snell was somebody you wanted to scream at, loud and often, but, underneath it all, thoroughly lovable; Bert Fry was... well... Bert Fry - 'nuff said! - and Nigel Pargetter was a tremendously good natured but thoroughly bungling upper class twit - a sort of Bertie Wooster for the 1980s.

But, despite the undoubted charms of the above mentioned, my absolute favourite 1980s Ambridge newcomer was a certain somebody who soon became known in the village as "The Dog Woman".

Arriving in Ambridge in 1984 to give a talk to the local Women's Institute on the subject of "The Colourful World Of The Afghan Hound", Mrs Marjorie Antrobus was a fascinating and colourful character herself!

A committed Christian, Marjorie was the widow of soldier and game hunter Teddy Antrobus and had been stationed with him in Palestine and later in Africa. On her return to England, she set up home in Waterley Cross, but it wasn't long before she decided to move to Ambridge. In 1985, Shula Archer, working for local estate agents Rodway & Watson, showed Mrs Antrobus around Nightingale Farm - a dilapidated property near Brookfield Farm, owned by Hugo Barnaby.

Marjorie was a keen breeder and exhibitor of Afghan hounds and was impressed with the fact that Nightingale Farm was set well back from the road - and that there were outbuildings which could be converted into kennels. Mrs A always put the interests of her beloved "girls" first and foremost, and so Nightingale Farm was restored and renovated to provide a home for herself and her charges.

One of the most enjoyable things about soap operas is being able to identify with certain characters and being able to liken other characters to people around us. We've all heard comments like: "I'd feel just the same if I was Jack Duckworth!", "I met a woman today and she was just like Amy Turtle..." or "Doesn't Pat Archer put you in mind of cousin Lorna?" Be they a barman, a charwoman or a farmer's wife, most soap characters are mirrors of ourselves and the people we see around us. Often exaggerated, but still recognisable.

But how many of us know - or have ever known - the wife of a soldier and game hunter who had spent years in several far-flung outposts of the British Empire, before coming back to England as a widow to breed and show Afghan hounds? Marjorie Antrobus was surely nobody's idea of a Mrs Average, yet it mattered not as actress Margot Boyd breathed such humanity and warmth into the character that we were enchanted by her and immediately took her to our hearts.

Her appearance at the WI in 1984 was intended to be a one-off, but she was soon back in Ambridge, opening the village fete. Then came her elevation to Ambridge resident.

As noted earlier in this text, some local residents dubbed Marjorie "The dog woman", but she soon made many friends.

Into the flat at Nightingale Farm moved various tenants for Marjorie to look after over the years - including Nigel Pargetter and Ruth Pritchard. Marjorie had a great affinity with young people, and Ruth in particular became great friends with her - Marjorie was the only one Ruth confided in about her feelings for David Archer (Timothy Bentinck).

Nigel Pargetter unwittingly wreaked havoc in 1986: in competition with Elizabeth Archer (Alison Dowling) as an ice cream vendor, Nigel's oft-heard Teddy Bear's Picnic jingle drove Marjorie's Afghans into a frenzy!

Mrs Antrobus soon settled down into Ambridge life, becoming editor of the village magazine. She represented Ambridge at the 1986 Women's Institute AGM at the Albert Hall and proved herself no prude - joining in discussions about AIDS and child abuse, amongst other contentious issues.

She was also an essential part of Ambridge's on-stage entertainments. Who could forget her winning the talent contest at the Ambridge 1989 Spring Festival, singing Nice People With Nice Manners alongside Ruth Archer? Who could forget her as Lady Bracknell in the village production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1990? Girls just wanna have fun, or so Cyndi Lauper says, and if Marjorie was anything to go by, Cyndi is certainly to be believed. Always young at heart, Marjorie once accompanied Eddie Grundy (Trevor Harrison) and Radio One DJ John Peel in a rousing rendition of Yellow Submarine - seated in the back of Eddie's van!

But Marjorie wasn't just a confidante for those in distress, a village worthy or a character simply designed to make us smile between her good works and shoulder-to-cry-on moments. Eccentric though Mrs A was, she was utterly believable - and a very rounded character. Her voice absolutely throbbed with passion as she confided to Freddie Danby (Ballard Berkeley) that pregnant Afghan Portia's pups were going to be "works of art" after her mating with Little Croxley Owen Glendower in 1987.

And Marjorie's loneliness and great fondness for Colonel D were obvious as she asked him to be present at the birth and tried to ensure that he would be present by promising that the first-born pup would be named "Freddie" after him. Hear the scene at the BBC's 1980s Archers Timeline - scroll down to 1987.

As it happened, the birth of Portia's pups brought a great shock: Little Croxley Owen Glendower was not the Daddy, and Captain, Jack Woolley's much-loved Staffordshire bull terrier companion, was! Marjorie was shattered.

Even more dramatically, a few years later, Marjorie lost a large sum of money - falling victim to swindler Cameron Fraser (Delaval Astley), who arrived in Ambridge in 1990.

When it came to romance, Marjorie certainly didn't consider herself too old, but her excursions into the romantic arena were doomed to failure. Colonel Danby was not interested, and when she answered a small ad in The Borchester Echo ('gentleman farmer seeking companionship') she was startled when none other than Joe Grundy (Edward Kelsey) turned up at the rendezvous. Still, give her her due, she helped him write to another applicant and lent him one of Teddy's tweed jackets for the date that resulted.

While The Archers refused to decline into a creaky old age in the 1980s, it didn't become an imitation of the hugely popular American soaps of the era either. Today newspaper remarked in 1986:

In Denver there were two Krystle Carringtons, one kidnapped and one with a permanent headache to fend off husband Blake. In Dallas they were still mourning Bobby Ewing's death. In Ambridge, Jethro Larkin had his dog's photograph taken in a booth in Borchester and Mrs Antrobus became editor of the parish magazine.

Six years ago, the average Archers' fan was a woman over 50 who thought Shula Archer was a young tearaway. Now the latest goings-on in Ambridge are discussed by bright young things at posh dinner parties - perhaps the poshest, since the Queen, the Queen Mother and the Princess of Wales are known to be fans. At The Times there is talk of forming a Nelson Gabriel fan club.

I can tell you that many of us "commoners" were lapping up the show, too!

Old age forced Marjorie Antrobus to give up Nightingale Farm and move into The Laurels, a local nursing home, in 2004. Margot Boyd, a distinguished actress of great talent, style and humour, died in 2008 - at the age of 94.

Mrs Antrobus was a thoroughly "good egg" and had that special hint of Ambridge magic about her that ensures her a place in The Archers gallery of all-time greats. She was a tremendous character, who helped to ensure that the 1980s, a testing time for the show with the departures of so many old favourites, are remembered as a splendid decade in the show's long life.

They don't make 'em like Marjorie Antrobus anymore. Nor, indeed, Margot Boyd.


Mrs Antrobus with two of her "girls".

1 comment:

Sheila A said...

A lovely, lovely character - both Margot Boyd and Mrs Antrobus!