GRAHAM HARVEY: 'The Archers tryout brought one huge challenge'

‘The Archers tryout brought one huge challenge’: A chance encounter as a teenager introduced Graham Harvey to the unrequited love of his life. Years later, that meeting would clinch his career as a scriptwriter for his favourite soap

  • UK writer Graham Harvey opens up about inspiration behind Elizabeth Archer
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The year is 1984. George Orwell’s Big Brother hasn’t appeared (yet). Stevie Wonder is riding high in the charts with ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’. But down in the Somerset cottage where I live with my wife Anne, all I can think about is whether the scenes I’m writing for my favourite soap, The Archers, are going to be strong enough to get me a regular job as a scriptwriter.

I’d never written drama before but I knew a bit about country life. I was 41 and for ten years I’d worked as a farming journalist, mostly sitting in farmhouse kitchens listening to family tales of triumph and woe. Why not retell some of them through the residents of the fictional Ambridge? I’d been listening to the show since my student days, so I’d got to know the characters pretty well.

I made up a few scenes and storylines and sent them on spec to the BBC at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. Archers boss William Smethurst must have seen some small spark of ability, I suppose. A few weeks later he called to offer me a ‘trial week’. I had to write five daily episodes to see if I’d make the grade as a writer.

This is the reason I sat all day at my kitchen table, bashing out dialogue on my portable Olivetti typewriter. As I worked through the week’s episodes, I was beginning to feel chipper about the way the drama was unfolding. There was one big worry, though.

My storyline said I had to introduce a brand new character, a teenager called Elizabeth Archer, daughter of the show’s central couple, Phil and Jill Archer of Brookfield Farm. In my Friday end-of-week episode, she was supposed to chat up and arrange a first date with one of the most popular young characters, Nigel Pargetter.

Graham Harvey opens up about his experiences with writing for The Archers and how it was inspired by a young love

What could I know of the early life of this new character, the daughter of middle-class farmers? Her childhood, I guessed, would have been all dogs, horses and Pony Club jamborees. Mine, by contrast, had been on a housing estate in Reading. While Elizabeth was fox-hunting, I was happy speeding down Southdown Road on my mate’s soapbox cart, made by his dad out of pram wheels and bits of an old tea chest. All week, I worried about how to get inside Elizabeth’s head. Then I had a brainwave: I’d make her like Paula Brooks-Thomas.

I met Paula in 1959 after we’d moved to a village near Henley-on-Thames. I was 16 and had taken a Saturday job delivering orders for the family greengrocer’s shop on the high street. The first three times I called at the Edwardian semi where Paula lived, the box was taken in by a charming, middle-aged woman who was always effusive in her thanks. When I rang that doorbell for the fourth time, my world changed for ever.

This time a young woman of about my age opened the door. She had deep-blue eyes and blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her smile seemed momentarily to rob me of the power of speech. For the next few months I could hardly think of anything but her. We’d meet frequently around the village, usually by chance, seemingly. It’s as if our lives had become in some mysterious way intertwined, in what physicists call ‘quantum entanglement’.

She was funny, perceptive, disarmingly honest, sometimes outrageous, always warm and generous of spirit. Nothing in the culture of the boys’ grammar school I attended had given me the slightest inkling that girls could be like this. Sadly we never actually dated. While our lives may have brushed together, our bodies certainly didn’t. Somehow I knew she was out of my league. And somehow she knew I knew it. The easiest thing for her would have been to tell me to get lost, to stop wasting her time.

But she never did. She carried on relating to me as if I was important to her, even if the thing was going nowhere. At a lonely time in my life she made me feel good about myself. For that I’ll always love her.

Twenty-five years on, I decided Paula – still fresh in my memory – would be Elizabeth Archer. She would appear in my Friday episode, as per the storyline. She would meet Nigel in Brookfield orchard while he was still reeling from being dumped by her elder sister Shula. And, like Paula with me, she would crash into his life like a summer storm.

With the week’s scripts completed, I sent them off and waited for the verdict. It wasn’t long in coming – and the early portents weren’t good. ‘I have to tell you they weren’t great,’ Smethurst told me gravely over the phone. My heart sank. That was it, then – my scriptwriting career was ending almost as soon as it had begun. But the voice on the phone hadn’t finished yet.

‘There was one scene I did like, though – your final scene on Friday, where you bring in Elizabeth. Very nicely done, I thought. Exactly the way I imagined her. I’ve copied the scene to the other writers. This is the way I want the character written from now on. So, well done. See you at the next script meeting.’


I was on the team. And I had Paula and Elizabeth to thank. For one glorious week she became my character, and mine alone. Then, of course, the other writers came in, adding character traits, back stories, small foibles. Someone said she should get chucked out of her private school for organising boozy parties. Others wanted her to be disruptive of family life back at Brookfield Farm. My barely glimpsed character was being turned into a fully rounded, complex human being. Now she belonged to everyone.

Even so, she remained a favourite with me. I left The Archers in 2017 and over my 34 years on the show we gave her many tough storylines. In 1992 her disastrous affair with landowner and businessman Cameron Fraser ended when he abandoned her, pregnant, at a motorway service area.

We gave her happy times, too. Ten years after I introduced her to the show’s five million listeners, she married her one true love, Nigel.

The couple had twins, Freddie and Lily, and were blissfully happy – until we writers, fickle manipulators of fate, spoiled everything by having Nigel die in a fall from the roof of their home, Lower Loxley Hall. I still feel some personal regret for my part in that storyline.

The actor Alison Dowling played the teenage Elizabeth wonderfully in my first trial episodes and is still in the role today, 39 years later. What she made of the storylines I never discovered. There weren’t many opportunities for writers to meet up with actors. I met Alison once at an Archers Christmas do, but I never got round to telling her the back story.

I often wonder what Paula made of her life. A few months after we met in 1959, my family left the village and I never saw her again. If she’s still alive, she’ll be approaching 80 now. All I can do is thank her for the love she showed me all those years ago. I’d like to think I put it to good use.

Underneath The Archers: Nature’s Secret Agent on Britain’s Longest-Running Drama by Graham Harvey (Unbound, £18.99*)


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