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Who inspired the Elizabeth Archer character in The Archers?

Graham Harvey Photo Priddy's Photo Shop
Graham Harvey Photo Priddy's Photo Shop

For more than 30 years, Graham Harvey was a scriptwriter for The Archers. In his latest book, Underneath The Archers he gives readers behind-the-scenes access to Britain’s much loved radio drama whilst also exploring the environmental issues which farmers face today. In an exclusive for Somerset Life, Graham tells us how his own ‘young love’ influenced the ‘life’ of Elizabeth Archer…

‘It’s the autumn of 1984. George Orwell’s dire predictions haven’t come true. In the charts Stevie Wonder’s at Number 1 with ‘I just called to say I love you’. But down in my small cottage near Taunton, all I can think about is whether the dialogue I’m writing for my favourite soap, The Archers, will be good enough to get me a regular job on the show. I thought I was in with a chance. Though I’d never written drama before, I knew a fair bit about farming. For the past decade I’d been making a living as a farming journalist, mostly sitting in farmhouse kitchens listening to stories of triumph and tribulation. Some of these surely could be recycled through the fictional villagers of Ambridge. I’d be a fan of the show since my days as an agricultural student so I knew them pretty well. In a rush of creativity, I’d invented some scenes and posted them to the BBC at Pebble Mill in Birmingham where The Archers was made. I’d then forgotten all about them. So when, a few months later, Archers boss William Smethurst phoned to offer me a week’s trial, it came as a shock. Basically, I’d be taken on as a temporary writer to see what sort of job I’d do.

Here’s why I was sitting all day at the kitchen table bashing out scenes on my portable Olivetti typewriter. As I approached midweek in my episodes, I was feeling reasonably happy with the way the drama was unfolding. However, I had one major worry. Rushing towards me like a tsunami was my Friday, end-of-week episode, with it’s terrifying ‘hook’, the weekly cliff-hanger that was supposed to ensure everyone tuned in again next week. My Friday hook presented me with an as-yet unresolved challenge. According to my storyline, I was supposed to introduce a new character, the teenage Elizabeth Archer, daughter of the show’s central farming couple, Jill and Phil Archer. In my Friday episode she was meant to chat up and make a first date with one of the show’s most popular young characters, Nigel Pargetter. This gave me a problem. How on earth was I to get inside the head of this character I had so little in common with? The daughter of middle-class farmers, her early life would have been all dogs, horses and Pony Club jamborees. Mine, on the other hand, had been on a council estate in Reading. While Elizabeth would have been riding to hounds, I was burning rubber on my mate John’s soap-box cart, made by his dad from old pram wheels and bits of old tea chest.

How was I to understand this character twenty-five years my junior and from a totally different background? That’s when fate handed me a freebie. Why not make her like Paula Brooks-Thomas?

I was 16 when I met Paula. By then we’d moved from my beloved council estate to a village near Henley-on-Thames. I’d taken a Saturday job delivering orders for the local greengrocer’s shop. Paula lived in a smart, Edwardian semi on one of the main village roads. The first three times I called there it was her mum who took in the box. The fourth time I rang the doorbell, my world was about to be thrown into turmoil. This time the door was opened by a young woman of about my own age. She had intense blue eyes and blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. Her dazzling smile had the effect of momentarily robbing me of the power of speech. Over the next few months, she was to be the only thing I could think about. We’d often meet around the village, seemingly by chance. It’s as if in some mysterious way our lives had become intertwined, like what physicists call ‘quantum entanglement’. She was funny, perceptive, disarmingly honest, occasionally outrageous, always warm and generous of spirit. The culture at the boys’ grammar school I attended had never given me an inkling that girls could be like this. Sad to say we never actually went out on a proper date. Though our lives often brushed together, our bodies never did. I suppose I knew somewhere that she was out of my league. And somewhere she knew I knew it. The obvious thing for her to have done would have been to tell me to get lost. She never did though. She continued relating to me as if I was someone who mattered. As if I were an important part of her life, even though whatever it was between us was clearly going nowhere. At a lonely time in my life she made me feel alright about myself. For that I’ll always love her.

Twenty-five years later, I decided that Paula, still fresh in my memory, would become Elizabeth Archer. As set out in my storyline, she would appear in my Friday episode, meeting Nigel in the orchard at Brookfield Farm. He’d be feeling gloomy after being dumped by her older sister Shula. Like Paula with me, she would come crashing into his life like a summer storm. I finished my week’s episodes and sent them off to Pebble Mill, waiting with trepidation for the verdict. I didn’t have to wait long and the early portents weren’t encouraging. “I have to tell you the scripts weren’t great” Archers boss William told me gravely over the phone. That was it then. My script-writing career was coming to an end almost as soon as it had begun. But the voice on the phone hadn’t finished. “There was one scene I liked though – your last scene on Friday. Where you bring in Elizabeth. Very nicely done, I thought. Exactly the way I imagined her. I’ve copied the scene to the other writers. This is the way I want this character written from now on. So well done. See you at the script meeting” I’d made it. I was on the team. And I have both Paula and Elizabeth to thank for it. For one glorious week she became my character, and mine alone. Then, of course, the other writers came in, adding character traits, back stories, small foibles; turning my barely glimpsed character into a fully-rounded, complex human being. Now she belonged to everyone. Even so, she remained a favourite with me. Over the years we gave her many tough storylines. In 1992 her disastrous affair with landowner/businessman Cameron Fraser ended when he abandoned her, pregnant, at a motorway service area. We gave her happy, times too. Ten years after I introduced her to the show’s millions of fans, she married her one true love, Nigel. What actor Alison Dowling made of these events I never discovered. There weren’t many opportunities for writers to meet with actors. Alison, who played the teenage Elizabeth wonderfully well in my first trial episodes, is still playing the character today.

As for Paula, the girl who made possible my writing career on my favourite drama, I often wonder what she made of her life. If she’s still with us she’ll be approaching 80 now. All I can do is thank her for the love she showed me all those years ago. I’d like to think I’d put it to good use.’

You can buy Graham's book via unbound.com

***PULL QUOTE***

'At a lonely time in my life she made me feel alright about myself. For that I’ll always love her.'



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