Entertainment & Arts

The Archers star reveals sacking secret after 60 years

Ysanne Churchman on The Archers Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The death of Grace Archer remains one of the show's most famous moments

Sixty years ago, ITV was born with a star-studded launch. But Britain's first commercial TV broadcast was overshadowed by a BBC radio soap - and the star at the centre of the plot has now revealed the truth about what happened.

"Who killed Grace?" the Daily Express demanded on its front page on 23 September 1955. "AND WAS IT JUST COINCIDENCE IT HAPPENED ON ITV NIGHT?"

Grace was Grace Archer, who had been heard perishing in a stable fire in BBC radio serial The Archers the previous night.

The glamorous young wife of Phil Archer, played by Ysanne Churchman, was one of the soap's main characters. Eight million people heard her dramatic demise.

Afterwards, distraught listeners flooded the BBC switchboard and vented their grief in newspaper letters pages.

"The Archers are like members of the family," wrote Mrs D Hall of Burton-on-Trent to the Daily Mirror. "This 'death' has brought a sense of grief to me that not even the thought 'it's just a play' can quite erase."

Mrs L Botterill from Kettering declared: "At first I couldn't believe my ears. 'Grace Archer dead?' I said to my husband. 'She mustn't be!' Then I felt quite cold and had to put my woolly on."

And a correspondent identified as SW from Balham, south London, complained: "I thought I was in for a lively party when I was invited next door for the first night of ITV.

"Instead it was like a house of mourning because Grace Archer had been 'killed off' in that radio serial at 7pm."

That must have been music to the ears of the BBC top brass, for they had deliberately timed Grace's downfall to sabotage the launch of ITV.

Image copyright Daily Mail/Rex Shutterstock
Image caption ITV launched with coverage of a seven-course banquet at London's Guildhall

Fifteen minutes after Grace's shocking death, a sequence showing sweeping shots of London landmarks, accompanied by a rousing voice-over, went on air on TV's channel nine.

This was the new ITV. The opening sequence was followed by live coverage of a seven-course banquet from London's Guildhall, then a variety show featuring Hughie Green and Elizabeth Allan.

After that, there was drama performed by the leading actors and actresses in the land - The Importance of Being Earnest with Dame Edith Evans and Sir John Gielgud; and Baker's Dozen with Alec Guinness and Pamela Brown. Then there was boxing, a fashion show and more variety.

The first night was only available to those with TV sets in London and surrounding areas, and around 100,000 were estimated to have tuned in.

The coming of independent television was highly controversial. BBC founder Lord Reith was aghast at the breaking of the corporation's monopoly, and feared it would bring an invasion of an American-style commerciality.

"Somebody introduced dog-racing into England," he said. "And somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the black death.

"Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country… Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake."

Image caption The station controller sent a memo asking The Archers' writers to kill off a major character

In public, the BBC denied it had intended to try to smother its new rival at birth.

Official line

The official explanation for Grace Archer's headline-grabbing death was that the show had too many characters and they needed to get rid of one.

"We knew some major person must go out to leave other situations possible," Mr D Morris, head of BBC Midland regional programmes, told a press conference afterwards.

But, as the Daily Express suggested, that was not the full story.

Earlier that year, H Rooney Pelletier, controller of the BBC Light Programme, had written a memo saying: "The more I think about it, the more I believe that a death of a violent kind in The Archers, timed, if possible, to diminish interest in the opening of commercial television in London, is a good idea."

Image caption Ysanne Churchman said she was subjected to 'victimisation'

And so there was a violent death on the night of ITV's launch, and Grace was the victim. But one question remained. Why Grace? Or - more to the point - why Ysanne Churchman?

There were rumours that Churchman had been involved in a pay dispute with the corporation, and had brought in actors' union Equity. But no-one involved would confirm the story.

"Was Grace Archer coldly and calmly murdered - to rid the Archers of Ysanne Churchman?" The Daily Mirror asked.

"The BBC know the facts. So does Equity. And, of course, so does Ysanne Churchman. But, dead girls can tell no tales."

Dead girls can tell no tales.

That phrase has now been borrowed for the title of a BBC Radio 4 docudrama about these events, which was broadcast on Saturday.

At the conclusion of Saturday's drama, Churchman herself - now aged 90 - spoke to finally resolve the mystery of why her character was killed off.

It was "victimisation because I'd been to Equity to get my fees put right", she revealed. She wanted the same pay as her male co-stars, and for actors to be in the union. The Archers creator Godfrey Baseley wanted her out.

"But don't feel too sorry for me," Churchman continued. "In some ways Godfrey Baseley may even have done me a favour.

"They say that when one door shuts another opens. And on the very night Grace died, ITV started, and immediately needed people with just exactly my experience to voice the commercials. And so I was able to make a good living from voice-overs for years."

Grace 'never really died'

For ITV's 50th anniversary in 2005, Churchman sent a card of congratulations to the broadcaster's chairman, signed from Grace Archer.

"I hope he appreciated the joke because I've sent another one this year too," she said.

"For me, for The Archers and for so many listeners even today, Grace - the character, the sensation of her death, the claims and counter-claims, the myth-making - mean that she's never really died. A good story never does.

"The legend of Grace will live on, and I must say that I really feel quite proud to have been part of it."

Dead Girls Tell No Tales is available on the BBC Radio 4 website.

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