Mark Damazer's tribute to Norman Painting

I met Norman Painting for the first time at a party shortly after I had been granted the privilege of running Radio 4. It was only a few days after I had been remorselessly grilled on air by Eddie Mair on Radio 4's PM programme about The Archers in order to see whether this pillar of Radio 4 (and indeed of national life) was about to be de-commissioned, and Phil Archer along with it.

I had no such intention. Who would ever want to disrupt Norman's world-beating stint? It would be unimaginable.

So when I met Norman and greeted him as Phil he was pleased but, then, I detected not really quite so pleased. I was keen to tell him that I liked The Archers, enjoyed it, and had no intention of risking my life by axing it. But once we'd had that chat I could see that he wanted the conversation to go elsewhere. And when I began to know more about Norman Painting I could see why.

For, although he was indeed the record holder for 'actor in the longest continuous role', and became a national celebrity and something of a hero for dealing with Grace Archer's death in September 1955, and the man who ended up with Jill, and the man who became the Ambridge patriarch, Norman Painting was a great many other things.

He was a man of enormous cultural breadth - music, books, writing, drama, nature. And he was a scholar. And all of this from a not very privileged background. His mother used to scold him for wearing out the battery on the family radio because Norman wanted to listen to classical music concerts the whole time. They were BBC concerts and Norman was always of the view that it was the BBC that had given him new horizons and helped him find his intellectual passions. The BBC, it must be said, got a very good deal in return.

And so he went to Birmingham University; got a first; started to act and combined all of this with firewatching: a skill that was of no use at all when Grace was trapped in the stables.

From Birmingham to a research scholarship in Anglo Saxon English at Exeter College Oxford and set for a career as an Oxford don, with a rather nifty line in acting. A don with a great voice. He was in the famous 1950 King Lear with Shirley Williams and Peter Parker of British Rail fame.

And so he was spotted by the BBC and there followed a mere 59 years of work as an actor: an actor who also wrote 1000 Archers episodes.

But it wasn't all The Archers. As a still very young man he worked with Dylan Thomas at the BBC's studios in Maida Vale where, in part, his job was to keep Thomas sober. For once Norman did not wholly succeed. It being a task beyond any single human.

He contributed to gardening programmes from the BBC's studios at Pebble Mill. All his adult life he was passionate about plants and, typically generous, he opened his gardens to the public. He was particularly passionate about trees. He was vice president of the Tree Council and there is a little bit of Warwickshire forest that is planted in his honour.

He was a generous man. He was involved in many charities: some local (like the Warwickshire branch of Age Concern), and some national.

So back to Phil Archer. There was one point of important similarity between Phil and Norman. The organ. Norman, like Phil, was a fine organist and played in churches - and played extremely well.

But put that convergence of fact and fiction to one side. Norman Painting was a man of many parts, many fine parts. It is easy to see why this Renaissance man never quite knew whether he'd made the right choice in 1950 when he became an Archer: for decades the Archer.

Mark Damazer is Controller of BBC Radio 4

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