Charles Collingwood celebrates 40 years playing Brian Aldridge in The Archers. He invites JANE SLADE to the charming cottage he and his wife Judy Bennett, who plays Shula in the series, have downsized to in Hampshire
Some five million listeners tune into the Archers every day. And as any devotee will know, Brian Aldridge, who has been played by Charles Collingwood since 1975 is a loveable rogue. He’s clocked up two affairs that we know about and attempted to have others, yet has managed to remain married to his long-suffering wife Jennifer.
In real life Charles is married to Judy Bennett who plays Shula in the series, and with whom he shares a delightful cottage – a downsizer’s dream – near Petersfield in Hampshire.
“We used to keep a caravan down in West Wittering where we would have holidays with the children,” Charles explains.
“I’d been brought up in Hampshire but Judy had never lived in the countryside – and she wanted to live beneath a big sky. So when the kids fled the nest we sold our home in Muswell Hill in North London and came down here.”
Here, is a flint and stone cottage in a charming village surrounded by rolling fields.
Their cottage adjoins another which belongs to Amanda, a teacher, who puts flowers on their kitchen table and fills their fridge with food, when they return home from holidays.
“We are so lucky,” Charles enthuses.
In a separate building is Judy’s den and at the end of a grassy glade a charming summer house they built a couple of years ago. “We have our own little areas and two Sky dishes so Judy can watch her soaps and I can watch the cricket,” smiles Charles.
There are about seven televisions dotted around the house, numerous radios but not a single laptop or computer. “We are not online,” Charles declares. “We are not on email.” Charles’s only concession to modern technology is a mobile phone.
His cubby hole of an office is crammed with cricketing memorabilia; he’s been a member of MCC for 50 years and has decorated the walls with cricket caps and filled the bookshelves with copies of Wisden, the annual Bible of cricket.
However there is also a framed original of the Radio Times cover when Brian Aldridge had his big affair with Siobhan in 2002 and an old school photo from Charles’s days at Sherborne. But no computer.
They don’t need one they argue. All the Archers’s scripts come through the post. As Charles explains, “They don’t email them because of security, in case any of the storylines get out.
Once a member of the cast brought his script to rehearsal on an Ipad and it was banned. And at the end of each day’s recording we have to post the scripts in a box on the way out.”
The programme, originally billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ but now rebranded as ‘essential drama from the heart of the country’, has been broadcast for 64 years. Yet a month’s worth of episodes are recorded over just six days.
The entire 60-strong cast troops up to Birmingham, which for Charles and Judy means a seven-hour round trip by car and an overnight in the Hyatt Regency, to record four episodes a day which can mean they are in the studio from 9.15 in the morning to 7 at night.
Yet while they have no wish to retire from Ambridge (unless they are ‘killed off’) they love returning to their Hampshire bolthole; to the well in the garden which they discovered under manhole cover, to the gorgeous gnarled old apple tree and the damson tree; Judy makes damson vodka and damson gin from the fruit.
Their sleepy, rural village, which I imagine to be a smarter version of Ambridge, is straight out of Midsomer Murders (Charles did star in an episode years ago) – there is even a church, and the back garden overlooks a rural landscape that rolls all the way down to the sea six miles away.
Canadian-born Charles, 72, who trained at RADA, also loves the garden but now employs a gardener and a nurseryman. “I do less gardening now but I love directing,” he discloses, unlike Judy who throws herself into the heavy staff and gets her hands dirty. “I like pulling things out and chopping things down,” she says.
They have a beautiful box hedge, a scented shrubbery full of poppies, roses, delphiniums, hollyhocks and lupins, a paved area for al fresco dining and a lawn front and back.
Their brick and flint cottage is actually on the Hampshire Sussex borders. “We are in East Hampshire where property is less expensive than in West Sussex,” Charles adds, although their house has increased in value since the Hindhead tunnel was opened in 2011, speeding up journey times on the A3 by 20 minutes.
They are just a few miles from Petersfield station where trains take an hour to London and close to Ageas Bowl, the home of Hampshire County cricket, where you will find Charles on a summer’s afternoon when he isn’t working.
Their staircase in the cottage is straight so ideal should they need to install a Stannah stair lift and the downstairs is designed in a circle with interconnecting rooms. “When we get dementia we can walk round the house and bump into each other,” Charles adds touchingly.
The couple have also installed an automated ladder which descends from the loft so they can get up and down easily.
Although their move from Muswell Hill was a decade ago, it still isn’t quite complete. “We needed about three skips to clear stuff from London,” Charles says, “And another three when we got down here. To be honest we’ve still got more stuff to get rid of and could still fill more!”
Something that won’t be chucked away though is Judy’s collection of cuddly toys which sit on the chest of drawers in their bedroom. “She’s obsessed,” sighs Charles, while Judy introduces me to her latest purchase – an owl called Orlando.