Underneath The Archers

By Graham Harvey

A powerful memoir by the environmental campaigner & former agricultural story editor of The Archers.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Pip Archer - My part in her story

In trying to come up with storylines for the teenage Pip Archer, a character I didn’t know particularly well, I found inspiration in the story of a woman who’d taken up farming more than 70 years earlier.

Young Elizabeth Henderson served with the Women’s Land Army in the final year of World War Two. On her birthday her mother gave her what had become a surprise best-seller of the war years - The Farming Ladder by George Henderson. She read it in two late-night sessions, and knew at once she had to work for this quirky farmer on his small Cotswold farm, by then the most famous farm in Britain.

A few months later the two were married, the nineteen-year-old Land Girl and the forty-year-old farmer and author. At a time of great social change, Elizabeth found herself caught up in George’s campaign to save small farms and create opportunities for young people returning from the war.

It was a campaign destined to fail – the post-war government had other ideas for farming. Even so her courage and commitment to the land, at a time when agriculture was almost entirely run by men, provided a great role model for other aspiring farmers. When I met her many years later and listened to her story, I realised at once that we needed to capture some of indomitable spirit for the character of Pip Archer.

Lunch on the farm…

My own interest in George Henderson’s farm began when I discovered his book in a second-hand bookshop. Later when I found out the farm was still owned by the Henderson family I couldn’t wait to make a visit. I found a number and phoned on spec, hoping they might agree to see me. I was in luck. I got to speak to Elizabeth, by then a widow in her late eighties. She invited me to lunch.

On the appointed day I was met at the farmhouse door by a tall, elegant woman with twinkling eyes and a welcoming smile.

‘You must be Graham from The Archers,’ she said. ‘We like The Archers here. Come in, come in.’ She led the way through the hall into a dining room, where sunshine streamed in from the garden. The table had been set for six. The daily lunch, I discovered, was a free-and-easy affair where any family member who happened to be around simply dropped in. Since a number of them worked on or around the farm, there was often quite a crowd at the table.

Later, over coffee, Elizabeth told me her extraordinary story. She’d grown up in Somerset with her twin sister and brother, the children of middle-class parents. Her great passion was animals. While still at school she kept goats in the family’s large garden.

When she left school in the last year of the war, she joined the Women’s Land Army and was sent as herdswoman to a dairy farm five miles from her home. It meant being up at five each day to cycle there in time for milking. On her 19th birthday her mother gave her George’s book – already a best-seller. It was a present that was to change her life.

A few months later the wedding took place in Somerset, a small family affair under wartime conditions. George travelled down alone. His mother disapproved of the relationship and refused to attend. But the marriage proved a strong one. The couple raised five children on that little farm on the edge of the Cotswold Hills.

Change in the countryside…

During this time farming was going through a revolution, both political and technical. As partners, George and Elizabeth guided the farm through these momentous changes. When he died in the early 1970’s she continued running it, with family help, until she retired at the age of seventy.

As I listened to her story I was struck by the quiet strength of this woman, with her twinkling eyes and ready smile. Though elderly and a little frail, her zest for life was clearly undimmed. In that repressive world of male control and regimentation, she’d been determined to make her life an adventure. What courage it must have taken to leave the safety of her Somerset home in wartime and make a life for herself in farming - and on her own terms.

As I drove away I found myself thinking about Pip Archer at Brookfield Farm. At sixteen she was becoming a major character in that central farm. I’d written a few scenes with her myself. Mostly she’d played a peripheral role in whatever drama was going on.

Hearing Elizabeth Henderson's story made me think afresh about our character. Elizabeth had become a farmer at a time of momentous change. Wartime farming had been kept under tight state control, then with the peace the Government had embarked on a massive expansion driven by public subsidy.

While George had been a doughty campaigner against subsidies and what he saw as state control, Elizabeth hadn’t been interested in politics. Even so, her marriage and her partnership in the farm put her at the centre of events at a time of momentous change. This had been the background to the BBC's new series drama about village life and farming families.

Today’s new challenge…

Today our countryside is on the verge of change as great as in those post-war years, or so it seems to me. Climate change and our vanishing wildlife are creating a new reality. Why not put our new young character, Pip Archer, at the centre of events, just as Elizabeth Henderson had been in the 1940s and 50s? In fact, why not take her story to the point where she became the new boss at Brookfield?

She could then lead the farm -and the nation - into the new era of climate-friendly farming. Put simply, this new, charismatic figure would be taking The Archers back to its roots. Just as the show had reflected an output-oriented agriculture at a time of food rationing, it would now show a countryside prepared for the climate emergency.

I’ve no idea where Pip’s storyline will take her, but I hope she will show something of Elizabeth’s unquenchable spirit. I was so taken with the life of this post-war farming pioneer that I wrote a one-woman stage show about her. Called ‘No Finer Life’ it ran to more than 40 performances, delighting audiences across England. Hopefully the show will be back again before long! The picture shows the late Elizabeth Henderson meeting the actor who was to play her on stage, Robbie Bellekom.

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