"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
"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.