Brian Hewlett – 40 years as Neil Carter
Writer, The Archers
Brian Hewlett (Neil Carter)
Forty years ago this week, a young man called Neil Carter arrived in Ambridge. Brian Hewlett has played Neil since the start. He looks back over his long career, and reveals some very unexpected roles outside of The Archers.
What are your memories of joining the cast?
I think I was working on the BBC Drama Rep at the time. I noticed in my diary, when I looked back to 1973, there were bookings for a lot of radio shows that I had done. So I can assume it was either during the end of one of those periods on the Rep, or it was a load of work that followed. The Rep was a great job, because you made so many contacts that of course the work flowed in afterwards. But I got this booking, I think for about four episodes, and to me that was just another job.
But after about the second episode, the producer Tony Shryane said they might write in Neil for a few more episodes. And of course here we are forty years later.
And who was Neil?
Neil came in as a teenager, an apprentice at Brookfield Farm. I was older but I was playing the role of teenagers in radio at the time. Tony said I could pick any Midlands accent I liked, so it really was open. Bob Arnold was playing Tom Forrest with a very strong North Oxfordshire accent and I thought I’d pick an Oxfordshire accent because I come from Henley-on-Thames. So it was an easy one for me to slip into.
What was his personality like at that time?
Fairly stable. Nervous of being exposed to animals. I can remember a scene where Dan Archer took him into a field of young bullocks and Dan was there to steady a rather nervous Neil. But he had to be shown the ropes – everything about the workings of the farm. He made some ghastly errors at times. Once he ploughed up a field of wheat thinking it was grass.
How has he developed over the years?
He had his troubles. He had a fair number of girlfriends and even a drugs problem. It wasn’t that he was taking drugs – they were planted on him. So he went through a sticky period. He wasn’t ever a tearaway, though. He was always fairly well behaved, or tried to be. And he seems to have got on very well in Ambridge and become a pillar of the local community. Chief bellringer, chair of the parish council – he even lights the bonfire on Guy Fawkes night!
What are your memories of his courtship with Susan?
That happened more by accident than design. Susan had won a pig as a prize in a contest and she sought out Neil for advice on how to look after it. I think she was quite keen on Neil, so she made a big play for him. Up until then, dear old Jethro was trying to get Neil interested in his daughter Clarrie. (Jethro voice) ‘Clarrie’ll make a wonderful wife for you...’ But Neil didn’t want Clarrie for a wife. He found a romantic attachment with Susan which then led to their marriage.
Wasn’t there also a brief moment of possibility with Shula?
There was indeed. While Shula was living on the farm and I was working on the farm they were quite close in age. So they were brought together and there was a time when they had an attraction for each other. Whether it was ever planned that they should get together more seriously I don’t know, but we certainly had a deep friendship and that went on. We don’t get many scenes of friendship now, but it’s always there of course, waiting to be used.
Can you remember any particular story highlights?
Early on, Neil suffered leptospirosis – Weil’s disease. It’s a liver disease I think, because he turned very yellow. He was in hospital and he was very close to losing his life. Like all good dramas, we carried it through to the point –is he going to live, is he going to die? I lived – thank you (laughs), so that was quite interesting to play.
Another moment was when Emma nearly lost her life through a car crash and Neil was deeply upset by that. And also by Susan going into jail. It put a lot of stress on the whole family, but Neil in particular.
While Susan was in prison, didn’t he come under the spell of a predatory woman?
Yes. His job at that time was as a feed rep, and one of the farms he went to had a very lonely farmer’s wife who made overtures to Neil. There was a great temptation there, with Neil feeling down and lonely at the time. But he managed to keep his sanity.
I did play one small part in The Archers before Neil. It was when I was working on the Drama Rep, to play one of Tom Forrest’s two foster children, Peter and Johnny. I was cast to play Johnny as a mid-teenager who was being sent off to agricultural college. So they were moving Johnny out of the programme and it was a convenient way to hear a character who probably until then hadn’t spoken at all. So I came in, did the one or two episodes and out went Johnny.
How has the process of recording the show changed over the years?
The recording techniques have changed. When Neil came in, the programme was in mono, so you stood either side of the microphone. But the playing techniques haven’t changed a lot. You’re reading the script but the listener must never know that you are. As I’m reading the words, I find it very necessary to cast through my mind exactly what I’m doing physically. Even if I’m not moving very much, you have to imagine what you’re doing. One hopes that the thoughts, in a magical way, can transfer themselves into your voice and then reach the listener’s ear.
Brian Hewlett (Neil Carter) on the cider club run in his own village - with no copying!
Are you ever recognised as Neil?
No, not really. I don’t think anyone has ever said to me: ‘Oh! I know that voice!’, because as Neil I use a slight accent. If I’m lucky enough to have done any television, then, yes, I have been recognised in the past.
So you’ve been able to have an acting career outside of The Archers?
Fortunately, yes. When I started my career, I didn’t have a massive interest in doing radio work. My prime objective was to get on stage and perform before a live audience. I think it’s very important for any actor to do that. I’ve had radio jobs in the past, for instance with the Drama Rep when one had long contracts. That was great, because you’ve got money coming in every week and at the end of the year you’ve made a decent living out of it. But you can never rely on what The Archers supplies or what any radio job supplies. You’ve got to work in other fields, I think and practise your art in other ways. It’s what every actor should strive to do.
And pantomime has been part of your life?
In the past, yes. I first got into a Dame dress at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. I played some Dames there and elsewhere. I think the last Dame I did was Jack and the Beanstalk in Cheltenham. But that was about ten, twelve years ago.
I hear you were in the first London run of the musical Chicago?
Yes, I took over as Amos Hart and had a good eight months to the end of the run. He’s the kind of man who nobody takes any notice of, so consequently he sings a song called Mister Cellophane – ‘They look right through me...’ I loved doing it, I must say. It was great.
Keri Davies is an Archers scriptwriter and web producer
Learn more about Neil Carter and Brian Hewlett in our Who’s Who