The Girls’ Day School Trust, along with Nottingham Girls’ High School, were delighted to award June Spencer the GDST Exceptional Contribution award in July 2022.
June has been bestowed this award due to her remarkable achievements and the longevity of her services to broadcasting. Last summer, she retired from playing the much-loved character, Peggy Woolley, in the famous BBC radio series, The Archers. She recorded her last episode at the age of 103, demonstrating her continued commitment and passion for the Arts.
June completed her education at Nottingham Girls’ High School almost 90 years ago, in 1934. Her dream to become an actress meant she left school early, aged just 15, although her initial request to leave school was denied by the Headmistress at the time, Miss Phillips. She remembers standing in the Headmistress’s office with Miss Phillips saying to her, “you’ll never make anything of yourself without your certificate.” How wrong Miss Phillips was, and how differently she would have been supported at Nottingham Girls’ today.
Growing up a beloved only child in Nottingham, where her father travelled around on a bicycle as a salesman for Crawford Biscuits, June caught the entertainment bug early. When the “talkies” began, she started to speak with an American accent, alarming her parents who sent her off for elocution lessons with a teacher who introduced her to poetry and Shakespeare. “She was also the producer of the very busy amateur dramatic theatre in Nottingham and when I was about 15 she said, ‘I think you might like to join the society to get some experience in front of an audience.’”
She was on holiday in Eastbourne with her mother when the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and recalls her father driving across country to take them home “because the trains were full of little evacuees”. On her 21st birthday the Nazis marched into Paris. She had made herself a dress for a party in a local hall. “There were 42 of my friends there, including all my boyfriends, and so I danced with each of them in turn,” she recalled in her autobiography, published in 2010. “I knew it was probably the last time we should all be together as they would soon be joining the forces.”
‘On her 21st birthday the Nazis marched into Paris. She had made herself a dress for a party in a local hall.’
One of her guests was “a fair-haired blue-eyed boy with a cheeky grin” called Roger Brocksom, who “always seemed to be around”. He was serving in Northern Ireland when the couple married in 1942, but a few months later was posted to India and Burma. “I simply went on living with my parents. It was three years and four months before we saw each other again,” she wrote. “By then he was a major and my life had completely changed.”
Her first big career break came when the local repertory theatre was casting around for someone to play a 12-year-old. Reluctantly, because she was well into her 20s, the theatre manager entrusted the role to her, rewarding her success with a contract to play in weekly rep, two shows a day, for three guineas a week. It was to be the first of many child roles for Spencer, who says: “Even today if I just close my eyes I can be any age I’ve ever been. I know the feel of it, the atmosphere.”
The arrangement broke down after she demanded a pay rise for taking the title role in a Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland and her boss made the mistake of suggesting that she should be grateful for being spared war work. “I drew myself up to my full 63 and a half inches and said, ‘I’d rather fill shells than work for you’.” She marched off to the labour exchange and landed a day job as a “hello girl”, staffing the telephone switchboards, while volunteering in morale-raising shows for the forces in her spare time. “We had a repertoire of two plays and away we would go in a cranky old bus with our scenery stashed down the centre aisle.”
In 1943, she passed an audition for the BBC’s Midland region and became a regular broadcaster in all forms of radio drama, along with several other actors who would go on to join her in The Archers.
The Archers has been running since New Year’s Day, 1951. It is the longest-running soap opera in the world. Characters – and actors – are born, mature, age, and die in it, at the same pace as listeners’ own lives. June Spencer appeared in that very first episode and, with a short break in the 1950s when she left to look after her children, has been in it ever since.
Not that it was a particularly momentous start: June found out she’d been cast in the new programme only when a colleague mentioned it to her in the canteen queue at the BBC’s Birmingham studios.
In that first episode, the Peggy Archer that listeners encountered was a young, cockney in-comer (her accent softened considerably over the years), who’d met her husband, Jack, when she was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the war.
The Archers was made in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and designed to dispense farming advice to its listeners while also educating townies about the countryside. Her outsider status meant Peggy could ask all the daft questions that listeners might be thinking, and get quite lengthy technical replies from the chaps. Her marriage to Jack, who drank, was already rocky; and so it would continue.
She also doubled as a couple of other characters: a Scottish maid and a flighty Irish baker’s assistant called Rita Flynn, who tried to lead Phil Archer astray. She once had to play two of her characters in a single scene, meaning a sharp about-face on accents.
‘We would rehearse scene by scene, then record the whole episode in one go. If anyone made a mistake, they’d be very unpopular’
“Practically everything was live,” she said in 2020. “When it came to The Archers, though, we were recording on very large discs. We would rehearse scene by scene, then record the whole episode in one go. If anyone made a mistake, they’d be very unpopular – you’d have to go right back to the beginning and re-record the whole thing again. That didn’t happen very often because we were used to going on air live. There was practically no television, so we had it all our own way. There was lots of lovely work.”
Her storyline with Peggy’s second husband, Jack Woolley, was to prove one of the most taxing of her career after Jack developed Alzheimer’s. Spencer’s own husband, Roger, also died after suffering from the disease. “It opened up a whole new life for me because Alzheimer’s Research UK approved, and invited me to speak.” She went on to become a patron of Alzheimer’s Research UK “because I felt it was something that needed to be brought into the open”.
Over the course of a career spanning seven decades, Peggy became the matriarch of The Archers – a fully human character, inconsistent and flawed, capable of great thoughtlessness, but at times rising to her very best, magnificent, loyal self.
In what we now know was her final scene, broadcast during July 2022, Archers listeners heard her cradling her new-born twin great-granddaughters – a handover of the generations, if you like.
GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2023/24
Charlene Hunter MB’s School Memories was part of our 2023/24 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine which also includes a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings and and how you can keep in touch.