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BBC's Tony Hall 'said sorry' after agreeing with criticism of The Archers

Published 15/09/2015

A programme speculates on the real reason for the barn fire that killed off Grace Archer (played by Ysanne Churchman, left) in a 1955 script on the night ITV launched
A programme speculates on the real reason for the barn fire that killed off Grace Archer (played by Ysanne Churchman, left) in a 1955 script on the night ITV launched

BBC director-general Tony Hall has apologised to the editor of The Archers after agreeing with a suggestion that the long-running series had become "EastEnders in a field".

The radio drama's editor Sean O'Connor revealed that Lord Hall called him directly to say sorry for siding with the comment made during a Radio Times interview.

O'Connor told Radio Times: "I was a bit annoyed, but he rang me at 7.30 in the morning and said that he was terribly sorry. And I said: 'You do know it's getting an extra 3.5 million listeners on the podcast? That it's doing as well as it did in the 50s?' And he said he apologised and we were doing a wonderful job."

O'Connor denied that Ambridge was going the way of Walford. "In EastEnders, for example, so many people have died that the audience is inured to character deaths. The feeling among the senior actors in The Archers is that they don't want their characters to die before them so we make no plans for their departure."

The history of The Archers will be up for debate as a new radio play explores the real story behind the death of character Grace Archer on September 22 1955. Archer burnt to death in a barn fire on the same day rival corporation ITV launched and it was commonly believed the BBC sacrificed her to win the ratings war.

O'Connor, who directed the new play, Dead Girls Tell No Tales, said that that legend was not true.

"That is the folklore I inherited, and is what most of the people on the show believe, apart from the senior executives, who knew the truth. But there were slightly different versions of that truth, some of them more melodramatic than others," he revealed.

O'Connor's radio play, scripted by long-time Archer's writer Joanna Toye, explores the idea that enmity between Ysanne Churchman, who voiced Grace Archer, and the show's first editor, Godfrey Baseley, was the real reason she was killed off.

Former Archers' editor William Smethurst claimed in his 1990 book that Baseley admitted the reason for Archer's death was his anger with Churchman over her insistence on equal pay for actresses.

This storyline will be examined, as will O'Connor's belief that Baseley used the launch of ITV as a cover to get rid of Churchman, in the vein of the Westminster tactic of "burying bad news".

The play will see the return of Churchman to the radio, but O'Connor ruled out the return of Grace Archer.

Instead, listeners can expect to hear "an extraordinary remembrance of Grace. It won't be someone dying in a barn but we pay some homage to the past while solving a question mark that has been going on in the series for a while," he said.

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