When commercial television first appeared in Britain the BBC saw it as a near-apocalypse and manipulated the Archers’ audience away from it with a ‘dirty trick’ that allowed it to rid itself of a militant trade unionist, writes PETER FROST
Sixty years ago on September 23 1955 commercial television arrived in Britain. Actually it only arrived in London and a few surrounding areas and only about 100,000 people had sets capable of receiving the new channel.
Even so BBC founder Lord Reith was horrified at the breaking of the corporation’s monopoly. He feared it would bring an invasion of US-style programming.
“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.”
Reith wanted something done. He ordered his Home Service station controller to send a memo asking The Archers’ writers to kill off a major character on the night of ITV’s launch.
Of course the first director general and his BBC management team denied it had intended to try to smother its new rival at birth.
The Archers’ script writers set it up beautifully. On the night before the ITV launch they had Grace Archer, the young, attractive and popular wife of Phil Archer plunge into a blazing barn to rescue her horse Midnight.
The last scene, a real cliffhanger, had Grace trapped by a falling beam and her brave husband Phil rushing in to try a rescue.
No wonder the next evening some eight million listeners tuned in to hear the show and the sad news that Grace had died in Phil’s arms. The BBC switchboard was jammed with fans in tears. Hundreds of wreaths arrived at Broadcasting House.
Below ;Ysanne Churchman and Norman Painting recording an episode of the radio series ‘The Archers’ in which they play the engaged couple Grace Fairbrother and Philip Archer.
In fact, earlier that year the controller of the BBC Light Programme had said in a memo: “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.”
But why was Grace chosen? A recent BBC docudrama has revealed the true story and it is one of crude, but not unexpected anti-trade union activity by the BBC.
After all we now know that for many years the corporation had an MI5 office in its headquarters simply to vet employees for left-wing, socialist or simply pro-trade union views.
The actress playing the part of Grace was Ysanne Churchman (above). Unlike many of the Archers cast she was a keen member and supporter of Equity — the actors union.
The man who invented The Archers was Godfrey Baseley (above) and he ran the programme as his own fiefdom. He liked the cast, writers and technicians to call him God.
Baseley paid actors as he felt fit, he argued that Churchman didn’t need the same wage as male stars as she had a husband with a good salary.
He also liked to use local rustic amateurs in small parts, paying them little or nothing at all.
Ysanne demanded equal pay with male stars and threatened to bring in Equity if she didn’t get it. She also encouraged her fellow cast members to join the union at a time where the Equity closed shop was far from universal.
The battle between the young actress and Baseley had been long and bitter — the year before he had written her out of the storyline by sending her character to Ireland for many months.
That didn’t stop her recruiting members for Equity or her demand for equal pay.
When the instruction came down from above to kill off a major character he quickly decided that this could solve the problem of his studio floor militant.
Churchman, now aged 90, in a postscript to the drama documentary confirmed she was subjected to victimisation from Baseley.
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 play Dead Girls Tell No Tales is available on the BBC iPlayer and is well worth a listen.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 2 October 2015