Entertainment & Arts

Former Archers producer William Smethurst dies at 71

William Smethurst (centre in glasses) with The Archers cast
Image caption William Smethurst (centre in glasses) with the cast of The Archers in 1978

Author and producer William Smethurst, who edited BBC Radio 4's The Archers from 1978 to 1986, has died aged 71.

Smethurst was credited with revolutionising the show, changing its direction and bringing in the now-longest-serving writer Mary Cutler.

Cutler said "it would not be an exaggeration to say he saved The Archers".

He left the BBC in 1986 to work on ITV soap Crossroads and series Boon before concentrating on writing.

Angela Piper, who has played Jennifer Aldridge in the show for over 50 years, said Smethurst "wove the social layers of Ambridge with a great deal of colour and imagination".

"He was an incredibly talented writer, creating a number of characters within the village with great skill, vivid imagination and a wicked sense of fun."

Image caption Smethurst (centre) killed off many original characters, including Dan Archer (Frank Middlemass, right)

Smethurst joined The Archers in 1974 as a writer, after working as a journalist and writer of radio plays, and took the helm four years later during what a BBC spokeswoman said was a "dark period" for the show.

"With listener numbers plummeting and the show's future questioned, Smethurst took over the show," she said.

"He felt strongly that The Archers should be rooted in village life... but his keenest instinct was to modernise the aging programme by introducing new writers."

That included Woman in Black novelist Susan Hill, songwriter Debbie Cook and scriptwriter Helen Leadbeater, alongside Cutler.

He also oversaw the deaths of many of the show's original characters - including the heads of the eponymous clan Dan and Doris Archer - and the bringing in of new favourites, such as Caroline Sterling, Susan Carter and the Grundy family.

Image caption Smethurst went on to produce and create the sci-fi drama Jupiter Moon

Cutler said Smethurst told her that The Archers "was essentially a social comedy - like Jane Austen".

"This meant that though terrible things could, and do, happen - the good would end happily and the bad unhappily.

"He told me I could write anything I liked at all - shock the audience to the core in one scene as long as the next scene was Tom Forrest listening to birdsong on Lakey Hill.

"William knew that audience and it would not be an exaggeration to say he saved The Archers for them."

After moving to Central Television to become Crossroads' executive producer, he took the same role on Boon and was the producer and creator of the BSB sci-fi drama Jupiter Moon.

He later wrote a book, The Archers: The True Story, about the history of the programme, along with several novels and a guide to writing for television.

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