Co-stars of Archers actress June Spencer have called for her to be made a Dame as she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday on Friday.
Known to BBC Radio 4 listeners as Peggy Woolley, Spencer featured in the first ever episode of the rural drama, broadcast on 1 January 1951.
Charles Collingwood, who plays Brian Aldridge, deemed her a “totally unique” actress who “should be made a dame”.
The show’s only original cast member says she has no plans to retire.
“I just love it. I think it’s what keeps me going,” she said.
She told the BBC’s Today programme that she is “very much looking forward” to going back to work after her birthday.
“I had no idea I’d be ever be 100 for a start, let alone still working!
“It’s been marvellous, I hope I can keep on doing it for a bit, and perhaps set an example to older people who have just given up,” she said.
Collingwood, expressing admiration for her commitment, described Spencer as the “ultimate professional”.
“I can’t believe there’s anyone else in the world of entertainment still working as a professional performer at the age of 100.
“No one in the history of The Archers has made fewer mistakes than June. It’s now become an expression: June Spencer Never Fluffs,” he told The Radio Times.
Carole Boys, who plays Lydia Snell, echoed calls for her to be made a dame, saying age has “not withered her and I don’t think it ever will.
“There’s no sense of the diva about her. She’s a grand old lady who isn’t a grande dame.”
‘Queen of Ambridge’
Spencer joined The Archers, based within the fictional farms of Ambridge, for its pilot episode in May 1950, having been a regular broadcaster since 1943.
Her character Peggy, only five years her junior, is a retired publican who lives at The Lodge.
Known as a strict but caring disciplinarian, she is described as the ‘Queen of Ambridge’ by the show’s cast and editors.
Her journey from barmaid to grieving widow with three children has seen her voice some of the show’s strongest storylines.
Her first on-air husband, Jack Arthur, succumbed to gambling and alcoholism, while her second husband Jack Woolley – who it seemed she would enjoy a happy retirement with – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The storyline brought a long and difficult on-air period as his carer, and reflected Spencer’s own life with her real-life husband, Roger.
Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2010, she recalled how Roger began “forgetting little things and then it got rapidly worse”.
Spencer cared for him from 1992 until his death in 2001. The Archers’ storyline began a year later.
“To start so soon after Roger’s death was hard. It gave me wonderful opportunities as an actress, of course, but it was difficult,” she said.
Scriptwriters offered her the chance to change elements that “didn’t feel right”, but Spencer refused, saying it was “written beautifully”.
Four years later, she lost her son, David, to alcoholism, aged 55.
Reflecting on her resilience to tragedy in his birthday tributes to The Radio Times, Collingwood said Spencer has “shone through sadness without a word of complaint” and remains “immense fun”.
Spencer now lives in Surrey. Her grand-daughter, the only child of her late son, lives in Australia.
Ahead of her big day, the veteran actress says the prospect of turning 100 feels “very interesting”.
She said: “I’m looked after so well in the studio. Wherever possible they give me sitting-down scenes.”
Writers plan to commemorate her birthday with a special surprise on Friday’s episode.
“It’s all about what Peggy has to say and how the senior members of the family – Peggy’s children and in-laws – react”, says Patricia Gallimore, who plays Pat Archer.
Spencer was made an OBE in 1991 and received a second award from the Queen in the 2017 Birthday Honours List.
In 2014 June was recognised with a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Audio Drama Awards.
Sunny Ormonde, the voice of Spencer’s on-air daughter, Lilian Bellamy, described Spencer as a “phenomenon” and hopes she will be recognised with a further honour.
“I admire her so much. I know she already has her OBE and CBE, but I’m hoping she might be made a dame. If anyone deserves it, it’s June.”