The world’s longest running soap opera, The Archers, is set in a fictional village in the Midlands – but there are a surprising number of Norfolk links

In Ambridge, village stalwart Neil Carter is wondering whether he will keep his job as manager of the pig farm and whether his son will keep the baby daughter he has been raising as a single father.

In a village in the Waveney valley his alter ego, Brian Hewlett, has been playing the part of Neil for almost 50 years – making him the eighth longest-serving soap opera actor in the entire world. And five of those ahead of him are in The Archers too.

So how similar are Ambridge and Brian’s Norfolk village?

“It depends how you picture Ambridge and each and every one of the listeners has their own idea of what Ambridge looks like,” said Brian. “I get unfair blame from the residents of my village that whatever happens here somehow turns up in Ambridge! We started a cyder club here before Eddie Grundy’s cider club was mentioned. Everyone in the village thought I’d arranged that. Although it is spelled cyder in this area and cider in the West Country and Ambridge.”

Brian even had a small orchard – until the gales of 1987 blew many of the trees down. And while he does not keep pigs himself (his animal husbandry is limited to three pet cats) he enjoys seeing them in local fields.

He plays Neil Carter with an Oxfordshire accent. His natural voice is different but with a similar slow, kindly intonation. “When I first started playing Neil he was 16. I was much older, about in my early 30s but I could play younger people because my voice was suitable,” said Brian. “I had about four episodes to do and after two of them we were in the canteen having lunch together and the director said it was going very well and they might write in a few more episodes. That was 49 years ago!

“If I’d known I might have been a bit reluctant about taking a job that was going to take such a lot of my life but as it turned out I was able to do a lot of theatre work as well as radio work, so it was nice to be able to be an actor in other spheres.”

While his life has been different to Neil’s (who stayed rooted to Ambridge as a husband, father, grandfather, farmer, parish councillor and churchwarden), Brian and his partner, who died a little over two years ago, also enjoyed decades of village life.

Michael Bartlett, of nearby Starston, near Harleston, has known Brian since he was a writer on the Archers in 1986.

Some of storylines Michael worked on are still playing out today.

He helped introduce Lynda Snell to Ambridge (she has since organised the villagers through innumerable pantomimes, protests, fetes and llama-linked storylines) where she immediately clashed with farmer Brian Aldridge over rights of way. Michael wrote scenes around the iconic ice-cream van rivalry between Elizabeth Archer and Nigel Pargeter (before they married and long before Nigel plunged to his death from the parapets of Lower Loxley.)

Eastern Daily Press: Michael BartlettMichael Bartlett (Image: Archant)

He helped write scenes for characters still bringing the everyday story of country folk to listeners, as well as for long-gone characters including Nelson Gabriel and Jethro Larkin.

"It was great fun but after a while I found it too restrictive to be part of a writing team,” said Michael. “Some writers like working together...but long term it didn’t work for me. I missed the freedom to go off at tangents of my own choosing. You can’t do that with characters that are already defined.”

He had joined the BBC in 1965 and worked for the World Service and children’s television before becoming editor of afternoon drama on Radio 4. He not only edited other people’s plays, but wrote his own too, as well as television dramas for children and many episodes of long-running children’s puppet series Rainbow.

But, despite an entire career as a writer, Michael had not made his debut in print until now, at the age of 75.

“I have always enjoyed the freedom of imagination that writing for radio allows, however, a play has a short life, once performed or broadcast it is over,” he said. “After 40 plus years of writing professionally but all my work being ephemeral (radio plays, TV, theatre) it is very exciting to actually see my name in print.”

His first two collections of short stories were published recently, with his first novel out later this year. My Village in the Valley is a collection of short stories about village life but Michael says it is definitely not about his own village.

“Some local friends have bought My Village in the Valley so they can, ‘See what chapter we’re in.’ They are disappointed. There is no one recognisable in these stories and the village is not my village,” said Michael, although he added: “I am always alert to a chance remark, a chance action which can be noted and then used as a starting point for a story.”

He describes the collection as light-hearted and filled with mishaps and adventures. There are storylines around rat-running, reclaiming disappearing footpaths and the village fete. “Common enough problems, but nothing in the life of this village is ever quite simple,” said Michael.

His other collection Personal Islands focuses on solitude. “I enjoy the company of other people – where else would I get the stories and characters to write about? But I am equally happy in my own company,” said Michael. “I have always been interested in the difference between being lonely and being alone which I think are very different things.”

Eastern Daily Press: Michael BartlettMichael Bartlett (Image: Michael Bartlett)

Eastern Daily Press: Michael BartlettMichael Bartlett (Image: Michael Bartlett)

He and his wife, Deidre Palmer, who was a BBC radio science broadcaster and presenter, ran an audio book company from Norfolk for more than a decade.

One of the best sellers was an account of the battle of Trafalgar written by the surgeon who tended the dying Nelson and read by Edward Kelsey, who played Joe Grundy in the Archers, until his death in 2019, and spent his final few years in Norfolk. Another of their readers was Charles Collingwood, aka Brian Aldridge of the Archers.

My Village in the Valley and Personal Islands by Michael Bartlett are published by Crumps Barn Studio and available now in paperback and as ebooks.

Four more Norfolk links to The Archers

1. David Archer, father figure of radio’s most famous fictional farming family is played by Tim Bentinck – actor, inventor, computer programmer and the Earl of Portland. He’s also been an HGV driver and the ‘mind the gap’ voice on the Tube.

Although Tim is an earl and can trace his family back centuries, he was not born into the landed gentry. His father inherited the title from a sixth cousin twice removed.

Tim was born on a sheep station in Tasmania, moving back to Britain as a toddler, but his family connections with Norfolk go back to the 17th century when David’s ancestors helped drain the fens and are still remembered in place names around King’s Lynn.

Tim’s father, Henry, grew up in Heacham and Tim, has a home near Burnham Market and studied at the University of East Anglia.

“I’m not the kind of earl that you expect,” he said in an interview with Norfolk magazine. “I’m a jobbing actor and wake up in the middle of the night, worrying where the next job is coming from.

“I have a tiny garden, not an estate.”

He wrote a biography of his father, a passionate environmentalist who worked in advertising and coined the phrase “Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes.” His own autobiography, Being David Archer, and Other Unusual Ways of Earning a Living ranges from celebrity friends to the tragedy of his mother’s suicide when he was just 13.

Tim began acting while studying history of art at the University of East Anglia and landed the part of David Archer in his 20s. Alongside his 40 years in Ambridge, Tim has also worked in television, film and video games - and was the voice of the helicopter pilot who wiped out most of Emmerdale

Eastern Daily Press: David Archer, played by Timothy BentinckDavid Archer, played by Timothy Bentinck (Image: BBC)

2. Former Ambridge milkman Mike Tucker is played by Terry Molloy of Bawburgh, near Norwich, and Terry’s son, Philip, has been playing Will Grundy since he was just eight years old.

3. Delaval Astley is another Norfolk aristocrat with Ambridge links. The 23rd Baron Hastings and the 13th Baronet Astley is a farmer and runs the Back to the Garden farm shop, delicatessen and restaurant at Letheringsett, near Holt and helped launch Holt Festival. His family has lived and farmed in Norfolk for eight centuries but Delaval spent just two years in Borsetshire, as baddie Cameron Fraser. His dastardly dumping of pregnant Elizabeth Archer and swindling of matronly Marjorie left the good people of bucolic Borsetshire deeply shocked, and the fans gloriously entertained.

4. Great Yarmouth gets an occasional mention on The Archers too, whenever long-suffering Clarrie Grundy needs a holiday from life with the Grundy clan and heads for her sister Rosie’s home in Yarmouth.