"Peter Wingfield appears to be a mighty cool customer."
The Daily Express, 30 August 1997

Wingfield Dr Helm

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"Farewell to Ambridge"
by Pauline Wallin
The Daily Express
30 August 1997

At last a face to match the voice. Peter Wingfield has moved on from Archers' villain to country vet on TV

For a man who received death threats as Simon Pemberton in The Archers, actor Peter Wingfield appears to be a mighty cool customer. Tall, with spiky dark hair and a bloodless but handsome face, he revelled in the huge controversy that erupted when wealthy landowner Pemberton lashed out with his fists at the rural soap's favourite daughter, Debbie Aldridge, with whom he had been having a torrid affair.

The shocking battering of Debbie, couple with his blind determination to evict Ambridge hillbilly clan the Grundys from Grange Farm, moved Anna Ford to describe the character as "rather a shit" on Radio Four's Today programme. He was seen as the most detested man in Britain by The Archers' six million devoted fans. The eviction storyline prompted questions to be raised about the rights of tenant farmers in the House of Commons and Princess Diana's divorce lawyer, Anthony Julius, offered to represent the feckless Eddie and Joe Grundy in court.

Most actors would have been overwhelmed by the passions aroused by the activities of their fictional creation, but looking back on the events of the past six months, Peter, who is single and lives in north London, says: "I found it all rather exciting. Its a wonderful feeling when your work is taken so seriously."

Not even receiving letters promising him a good thrashing and even death for lashing out at the lovely farmer's daughter and before that, a previous girlfriend — the widowed and saintly Shula Hebden — caused Peter to lose his "sang froid." "I got a lot of hate mail. The BBC kept most of it back from me but I saw some. One was done quite cleverly — made of bits of cut-up newspaper threatening to kill Simon. Given the sort of people who listen to The Archers, I didn't take them seriously at all. I'm sure they were meant in good spirit. If I was living in America, I would be genuinely frightened but this is England, after all."

Archers fans have been lamenting the fact that Simon Pemberton now seems to have taken fright at being taken to court by Debbie and has bolted to the Middle East after being given a conditional discharge for his offence. Love him or loathe him, his caddish antics certainly livened up life in sleepy Ambridge.

But during a break from filming a new ITV series Noah's Ark, in which he plays a country vet at odds with his conservative father played by Anton Rodgers, Peter reveals that Simon Pemberton has departed Borcetshire if not for good, for a very long time.

And should Simon ever darken Debbie's door again, it is unlikely it will be Peter's voice that will be heard as the ruthless rotter. The pressure of juggling recordings at the BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham with playing the role of Methos, a 5000-year-old man for cult American TV series Highlander which is filmed in Paris and the States [sic], has finally proved too much. He is a big star in America thanks to Highlander and has his own fan club. He arrives at conventions held for fans by stretch limo and has his own bodyguard.

"I loved doing The Archers but it was always quite tough. I was flying from Paris to Birmingham to record stuff, then I'd have to get straight back to Paris to film a night shoot for Highlander. It was very tiring." His decision to quit is, however, tinged with more than a little regret. He is leaving a show which he admits is "an institution" and attracts listeners from every walk of life including the Queen, actor Martin Clunes and pop star Roger Daltrey. "Playing him has been so enjoyable for me but it felt like there was a completeness to it. It was time to move on. There was talk of killing him off, and plans for him to go out in a blaze of glory — gunned down perhaps by Eddie Grundy. I was a little disappointed when I got the final scripts to read that he simply took flight with his tail between his legs.

"I would be surprised if Simon never appeared again. They would have killed him off if they had really wanted to end it. A few years down the line they may recast and get someone else to play him. Right now it's very unlikely that I will go back." Yet he has not departed far from the rural idyll of Ambridge. He has been filming the new role of Tom Kirby in Noah's Ark set in the tranquil Vale of Evesham. The story of a country veterinary practice in the Malvern Hills unfolds over six episodes. ITV chiefs hope the show will capture the imagination in the way that the BBC's All Creatures Great and Small did in the Seventies and Eighties, and Peter says it has the "feel-good factor" of rolling hills, appealing animals and an interesting conflict between the father and son who are partners in the practice.

The role meant close contact with the animal kingdom for Peter who had to endure perpetual stuffiness caused by an allergy to furred and feathered creatures. "I've been asthmatic all my life and I am a bit blase about it. I expect not to be able to breathe for part of the year. I had to take lots of stuff while we were filming just to be able to speak my lines," he admits.

Nevertheless, he calmly handled both domestic and exotic animals and had to conduct an internal examination of a shire horse. "It was not all that pleasant. You feel you have to do that to show your commitment to the show because that is what vets do. I'm very comfortable with animals — there were always cats and dogs while I was growing up."

He was born in Cardiff and was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother, both doctors, by winning a place to study medicine at Brasenose College, Oxford and training at St. Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College. But a month before his final exams, he decided to quit medicine for acting, a decision which appalled his father.

"My mother was very supportive but my father didn't speak to me for two years. It was very tough for him to accept. He was the first member of the family to be a doctor. From my generation, there's a whole bunch — my big brother is a GP and I've got a couple of cousins who are doctors. Now we are very close. He's quite clear that it was the right thing for me to do; I was never going to be happy as a doctor.

"Medicine is tough, it's a total commitment of your life and if you are not willing to give it that then you shouldn't be in it. I wasn't willing for medicine to be the only thing in my life. Ironically he once told me he never wanted to be a doctor, he wanted to be a vet. Well, I'm a vet on TV so I'm fulfilling his destiny."

Noah's Ark can be seen on ITV on Mondays at 9pm starting next week.

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