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Arts: Love,laughter and intrigue in Ambridge; Philip Key meets two of acting's least- known faces as they prepare to spill the beans on the Archers.

Byline: Philip Key

THERE'S nothing like a touch of scandal to spice up a soap opera, even the most successful. Soit was that last year fans of BBC radio's The Archers discovered that the married cad Brian Aldridge was at it again. In the show farmer Brian is married to Jennifer Archer but engages at regular intervals in extra-curricular activity with the ladies of the fictional village.

Last year's target was one Siobhan Hathaway, whom he not only managed to bed but got pregnant in the process. He kept all this secret from his wife even when the baby was born but found himself torn between the two women.

Listeners to the series were agog wondering when the rotter would be found out and what he would do when he was. Listening figures soared and Brian Aldridge became villain or victim depending on which side of the fence you were sitting. Men, it was said, admired him, women were appalled.

It was all grist to the mill for The Archers, first broadcast nationally on January 1, 1951, and now by far the world's longest running radio drama series.

But while the fictional village of Ambridge and all its characters remain very real to the show's legion of fans, the actors who play them are shadowy figures. Very occasionally they emerge from the fiction to reveal themselves to the world.

For actor Charles Collingwood -the man who plays nasty Brian -the moment came when he was tapped on the shoulder and turned to find Michael Aspel clutching a big red book. Collingwood was to be the subject of This is Your Life.

``It was my reward for being the nation's most famous adulterer,'' laughs Collingwood.

In fact,he has not been hiding his real life under a bushel in recent years, touring the country with his fellow Archers performer Judy Bennett in a show titled Laughter and Intrigue, Behind the Scenes of BBC Radio 4's The Archers.

IT IS A convenient exercise for the pair as they also happen to be married. They will be celebrating 27 years ofmarriagein a couple of weeks.

The show arrives at Chester's Gateway Theatre on November 11 and -after five years -is retitled Laughter and Intrigue 2. ``That's because we haven ow learned it,'' explains Collingwood. ``It's also developed and is very different from the first one.''

Collingwood and Bennett are a double act ons tageand in r eallife provide another for the interview, each bouncing bon mots off the other in generally genial fashion.

``Ooh, I have fond memories of the Daily Post,'' Collingwood tells me be-fore I have even asked a question. ``My first job after leaving RADA was in the Liverpool Everyman company. I played Estragon in Waiting for Godot and the Post gave me a really good criticism. It was a good start and most encouraging for a young actor.''

This was back in the 1960s when young Collingwood also appeared in Macbeth among other Everyman shows.

``And I went to school just round the corner from the theatre,'' pipes in Judy, not to be outdone. ``I was at Mount Pleasant School.''

She was born in Mossley Hill and went to school in Liverpool before heading south to study at the Guildhall Schoolof Music and Drama.

Judy plays ShulaHebden Lloyd (nee Archer) in the serial, a character who has had her own share of excitement. Her riding stables were recently attacked by an unknown horse-slasher, recently revealed to be village bad boy Clive Horrobin.

And Shula,despite being married, alsohadadalliance with the localdoctor, an incident which all ended in tears.

Judy is one of the show's veterans having played Shulafor 30 years.

Radio came into her life early. Her first jobs were in the West End. ``Not on stage, sadly, but as understudy and stage manager. After that I auditioned for radio and that's where it all started.

``Charles is the one who does everything,'' she says. ``Not very well,'' he chips in. He has been in numerous stage shows and TV productions including Inspector Morse and Lon-don's Burning. He also worked with Noel Edmonds. ``I was on Telly Addicts for three years playing the eccentric scorer,'' he says. ``And there was one appearance on Noel's House Party.'' As Mr. Blobby? ``I wouldn't wish that on anyone -it would have to be telephone numbers for me to haved one that!''

Judy is the voice expert, providing the voices for cartoons and children's shows. She was the voice of Walter the Softy in the Dennis the Menace cartoon series.

And the two have worked together on things like The Adventures of Mumfie, The Munchbunch and Clopper Castle.

JUDY did do an audition for Brookside some years ago and was turned down. ``I saw the director who was a friend some time later and he told me. I didn't get it because I couldn't do the accent. I thought I could but obviously not.'' ``Bloody cheek,'' Charles offers in consolation.

He also went on the Weakest Link soap specialand, much to his joy, won. ``I won pounds 9,600 for my local hospice which was fantastic. Anne Robinson didn't worry me -I thought she had a merry twinkle, really. In fact,I found it all rather appealing.''

While the pair do recount their show business careers in their stage show, their life in The Archers is what a lot of people want to hear.

``Well, we are very proud of having been in it such a long time,'' says Collingwood. He got the job after being taken to an Archers party by Judy and has now chalked up 27 years as Brian Aldridge.

``We talk about everything in the show and do a few sound effects.'' It seems radio sound effects have not moved on that much. ``We still have the box of gravel to walk on and spend a lot of Sunday lunches eating soggy tissue paper. It's all rather bog standard.''

Ah -but the animals must be done by an animal impersonator? ``No, and they never have,'' says Charles. ``Not even a barking dog. There are plenty of people who are barking but not in The Archers!''

Both love their characters. ``We get really good story lines ,'' says Charles. ``Everybody in the cast takes their turn at storylines -sometimes you have a good story and then you take aback seat for a while.''

The shows are recorded over six days when 2 4 episodes are put in the can. Then there is a three week break which gives Charles and Judy like other cast members plenty of time to do other things.

``Well, like this show,'' he says. ``The intrigue in the title is the intrigue about married couples ins how business which always interests people -couples like Prunella Scales and Timothy West and -at the top -the Burtons. And us.''

They are anyway unique, working as a married couple in the same drama serial. The stage show gives them a chance to meet Archers fans, too. ``They do say nice things. We have a question and answer session and a few months ago one man said he had just one thing to say: he came to the evening hating Brian but was leaving liking Charles. That a was a really nice thing.''

LAUGHTER and Intrigue 2 is at the Chester Gateway, 7.45pm,November 11


VOCAL TALENT:; Charles Collingwood (arch-cadBrian Aldridge) and Judy Bennett (ShulaHebden Lloyd) are stepping out from behind the microphone to take their husband-and-wife show on the road
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 7, 2003
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