Escaped pigs, planted drugs, a wife in prison, a son born with a cleft palate, two brothers claiming fatherhood of his daughter’s baby... 

It’s been an eventful 50 years.  

In the peaceful Waveney Valley Brian Hewlett can look back at half a century working on BBC Radio 4's flagship drama, The Archers.

Brian began playing Neil Carter in February 1973, on a temporary basis. Today he's the fifth longest-serving soap actor in the world, beaten by two fellow castmates, and the thespians behind Coronation Street's Ken Barlow and Rita Tanner.

“Nobody knew how long he might last when I first recorded his words,” said Brian. “Our director 50 years ago thanked me for my contribution and said, ‘We might write him in for a few more episodes.’ 'That's nice', I thought, 'A bit more work!'” 

Now the young lad who arrived in the fictional village of Ambridge as a farm labourer is manager of a big pig unit, as well as being a grandfather, parish councillor, bell-ringer, churchwarden and wise village worthy. 

Eastern Daily Press: Brian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in The Archers for 50 yearsBrian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in The Archers for 50 years (Image: Denise Bradley)

“Although Neil has been in the programme for 50 years, he is a character that is ever-evolving. When I first gave voice to Neil's lines I doubt whether any of our writers knew how he was going to develop. He certainly had no background, and to this day I am still waiting to hear anything about his life before being a 16-year-old!” 

When clueless Neil arrived in Ambridge he managed to plough up a field of wheat, thinking it was grass, left a gate open so the animals escaped, and was quite the ladies’ man with several girlfriends – until young Susan Horrobin won a pig and asked him how to look after it. The rest is Archers history. 

Eastern Daily Press: Neil and Susan Carter - Brian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in BBC Radio 4's The Archers for 50 yearsNeil and Susan Carter - Brian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in BBC Radio 4's The Archers for 50 years (Image: BBC)

Eastern Daily Press: Neil and Susan Carter - Brian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in BBC Radio 4's The Archers for 50 yearsNeil and Susan Carter - Brian Hewlett has played Neil Carter in BBC Radio 4's The Archers for 50 years (Image: BBC)

“The character has evolved as the writers and editors have seen fit, from a youth with very little experience, through some unfulfilled romances, then a sudden marriage, through joys and tribulations of family life, periods of insecurity, and the security of love, the recognition of dependability, and a deep-seated passion for his family's happiness,” said Brian. “All of this I have enjoyed performing, as I have enjoyed performing all well-written characters in other forms of my business.”  

Even after decades in Ambridge, Neil is subject to the whims of the scriptwriters, and Brian never knows whether he might soon be leading a major storyline, become side-lined and silent in the posh modern house he built in Ambridge for weeks, or even written out altogether. 

READ MORE: 5 Norfolk links to The Archers

If Neil is not needed in Borsetshire for a while, Brian keeps up with village events via the radio and said: “It's great to hear your friends and co-workers performing magic. I know and understand what they are doing, but sometimes tears will flow because their artistry has created reality.” 

After living with Neil for so long, how similar are the two men? 

“I like to think that I am different to Neil,” said Brian. “I leave Neil behind in the recording studio where his life is put on hold until his voice is broadcast and his own personality enters into the mind of each listener. If you want to find out what Neil's character is, ask a long-term listener.” 

Brian grew up near London ‘with a compulsive desire to become a professional actor,’ and lived in the capital in the early years of his career which has included roles on stage in plays and musicals, and then on radio and television.  

He originally met his partner, Malcolm, at drama school. They were friends for years, and after following their individual stage careers moved into a London flat-share together. 

“Having been brought up close to rural life in the Thames valley, I knew that at some time I would want to live in the country again,” said Brian. In 1983 they found an old farmhouse overlooking the Waveney Valley – and work at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. 

At last Brian, like Neil, was living in the countryside – where villagers have even suggested that Archers storylines have been inspired by events in Norfolk. 

“I get unfair blame from the residents of my village that whatever happens here somehow turns up in Ambridge!” said Brian. “We started a cider club here before Eddie Grundy’s cider club was mentioned!"

Unlike Neil, Brian’s animal husbandry is limited to pet cats - one from a rescue centre and two ferals which simply turned up several years ago. “The male feral one will still not let me touch him. He avoids all human contact, but recognises that he gets his food from me, so I am tolerated!” said Brian.  

Brian also began rewilding long before it became a plot theme on The Archers.  

His farmhouse originally came with a small orchard. It was devastated by the 1987 storms. “Re-wilding over the years has provided me with a wild-life home.  Conservation and wildlife have featured very strongly in the life I shared with my civil partner, Malcolm, so my life in Norfolk has contributed to much happiness.” 

Malcolm died three years ago after a long illness. “We both had plenty of time to know that the future held a moment in which a parting would take place,” said Brian. “But the dreadful moment of complete loss, when it happened, could only be, and was, experienced by me.   

“Then a wonderful thing happened. The love of all our friends was given to me by their support and understanding. I cannot praise friendship too highly; I am a very lucky person to have gained so many friends in my life.” 

The Archers is on BBC Radio 4 at 7pm, Sunday to Friday, repeated at 2pm Monday to Friday, with an omnibus edition at 10am on Sunday.