BBC Radio 4

Charles Collingwood on Brian Aldridge at 70

Writer, The Archers

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Charles Collingwood - Brian Aldridge supplied by BBC Pictures for use on The Archers

As Brian finally admits to being 70 years old, I had a very enjoyable chat with Charles Collingwood. Charles is not only an Olympic standard raconteur but is also married to Judy Bennett (Shula).

How did you get the part of Brian?

I got the part because I played a character called Dave Escott for six months. He was a dodgy paint salesman who probably sounded worryingly like Brian. Looking back, it was probably a six month audition. In those days it was a much smaller cast and there was much more of a pecking order. You had to fit in, not just round the microphone but in the green room. Fortunately the older ones loved cricket, so I passed that test fairly early on. 

Nobody was more surprised than me when I got the part of Brian. As I wrote in my autobiography Brian and Me, Tony Shyrane [then producer] said “I’m sorry you’re going after six months but we’ll get you in on a permanent basis before too long”. And I thought “no, no, no... No actor ever gets made a promise like that”. 

But it’s become a very permanent part.

Well, I’d like to think so. I’m very proud of creating the part of Brian and I’m very proud of playing him. He’s a wonderful character to play and I’m enormously grateful for the storylines I’ve been given over the years, which are really mouth-wateringly good. When I look back I realise how very spoilt I’ve been to have played these stories. But  also of course how enormously fortunate the BBC is to have had me to play them (smiles).

My advice to young actors when joining any soap is to bring something to the lines that the writer didn’t think of. Early on, I had a little look round. Vanity permitted me to think that I was one of the younger men and if I played it with a slightly rakish voice something would happen. And... well, we all know what happened.

It’s given him an edge that blander characters don’t have.

I like to think so. The only thing I asked Vanessa [Whitburn, former Archers editor] was not to make Brian  100 per cent horrible. Because if you do that, a character’s no longer interesting. If they’ve got some charm, people around the land can say “he’s a dreadful man but I get what Jennifer sees in him”.

What sort of reaction do you get  from people when they discover you play Brian?

Oh, absolutely extraordinary. Women of a certain age can go quite silly. Of course, they can be enormously disappointed when they see me... One woman said she thought I’d be like Michael Heseltine, with a full head of hair, which sadly I’m not. 

Let’s explore some of the dramatic highlights of Brian’s life.

I remember the time that Brian was knocked over by one of Joe Grundy’s cows and was very ill with epilepsy. And at the same time Kate went missing – if not dead then certainly drugged up to the eyeballs. That was a fantastic story to play. What made it so real was that life had to go on. 

Kate went missing, I don’t know, late summer. She didn’t appear again until the following spring or something like that.  But all the while Brian had to celebrate his birthday and they had to have Christmas with the other children and the farm had to be run. But as a parent myself, the torture that man had to go through... It was a fantastic story to play. 

I remember I was on the train coming up to Birmingham and I was reading my script and it said “Brian breaks down and cries”, in a scene with Phil. And I thought ooh golly, I‘ve never cried as Brian before. How am I going to do this? It so happens that my daughter Jane in real life is the same age as Kate. And I thought I know, I’m going to sit here and read this scene and I’m simply going to substitute the name Jane the whole way through. And the tears rolled down my cheeks, so much so that the man sitting opposite me on the train kicked me and asked me if I was all right, which was quite funny. 

Then I wondered if I could do it in studio. But fortunately, it’s one of the techniques of being an actor. Once you’ve found the emotion, you should be able to reproduce it.

Then there was the affair with Siobhan. 

That gave me a certain notoriety. It got me the famous red book with This is Your Life, after all. And it was wonderful playing those scenes with Caroline Lennon [Siobhan]. I always thought she had that edge in her. She had a ruthless side. She was prepared to take any lengths to take Brian away. In fact, she nearly killed them both in the car. 

And the eight minute scene I had with Tamsin Greig is something I shall always treasure and be proud of. It was beautifully written. And we didn’t do it too badly... 
As an actor, these scenes are liquid gold. I’ve always said – and I’m only half joking – the hardest scenes to play in The Archers are walking across not-quite-ripe oilseed rape with David.  

But you can’t have full-on drama all the time. 

No, certainly not. And I think it’s one of the high spots of The Archers that we don’t. In radio we can be reflective, which is what we’re like in life most of the time. 
And it’s fascinating when actors are given an opportunity to go up a rung dramatically. I think of lovely Hollie Chapman, who plays Alice. Before she found out about Brian and Siobhan, her scenes had really been mum and dad, and going to school and having a cup of tea. And then she was asked to really front up and she was absolutely brilliant. I found that one of the most exciting things in my time in The Archers, to watch this chrysalis turn into a fantastic butterfly. 

What about outside The Archers?

I’ve always been lucky. I’ve always been associated with long runs. I spent 25 years in schools and children’s television. 

How Wordy paid for Charles Collingwood's swimming pool

In schools programmes, didn’t you work with Judy [Bennett, who plays Shula]? 

I did. In fact that’s how we met, in 1972 I think on a thing called Words and Pictures. 

What’s it like being married to another Archers actor?

It’s fantastic. It’s a great help if you can work with your partner and be with them all the time. Theatre’s notoriously bad for marriages because of somebody on tour and somebody abroad filming... we’re all human. 

Judy and I have had this great blessing. She is my best friend and we do fall about laughing.  She’s a great help and an absolutely wonderful actress. We were lucky enough to go the Far East for Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, playing the two middle aged leads, and Judy was very, very funny. In fact I thought she was too funny, frankly. I told her at times that she shouldn’t be quite that good. No, she was wonderful. 

Brian’s self-conscious about being 70. But nowadays, 70’s no age at all, is it?

I’m 70! I can’t get away from it because since I was in This Is Your Life they put my age in the paper every year. Touch wood and whistle, Brian’s fit, I’m fit... let’s keep going. 

I live in Hampshire. I know a lot of men over 70 who, coo-er, they could wear out a lot of younger people. I hope Brian wears out a few people in years to come. 

Keri Davies is an Archers scriptwriter and web producer.

Learn more about Charles and Brian – and Judy and Shula – in our Who’s Who
Charlotte Martin on Susan Carter at 50
Brian Hewlett on 40 years as Neil

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