Angela Piper's Derbyshire Childhood
PUBLISHED: 16:14 20 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013
Pat Ashworth talks to Angela Piper, well known as The Archers' Jennifer Aldridge, about her Derbyshire roots in Melbourne
Angela Piper, known to millions of radio listeners as Jennifer Aldridge, has one of the most recognisable and distinctive voices in Britain. She has played Jennifer for almost 50 years. So as an avid Archers fan myself, its a little bizarre to be talking to her because I find myself wondering at times whether I have somehow stepped into the fictional county of Borsetshire or that she has somehow stepped into the real world of Derbyshire, her home county.
She was brought up in Melbourne, from where her forebears came. Her grandparents lived in Shaw House on Robinsons Hill, a family home which she remembers with great affection. It was built in 1793 for Samuel Robinson, regarded as the founder of Melbournes market garden industry, and some of Angelas strongest early memories are of standing on a wobbly chair in my grandmothers beautiful kitchen, with a pinny on, and feeling the cold, hard lard which I squished into flour to make bread and scones... And the gardens had all these fruit trees, pears and greengages and blackcurrants, and of course they made their own jams, rows and rows of jams and preserves. I just loved it. These are my roots.
That feeling of the kitchen being the hub of the house has never left her, and a succession of Archers-themed cookbooks has given Angela the chance to combine her love and knowledge of the radio show with her own love of cooking and baking. Jennifer Aldridges Archers Country Kitchen, published last year, has 150 recipes from Jennifers scrap book that include such mouthwatering treats as Clarrie Grundys Scrumpy and Cinnamon cake. Theres something there, within you, that likes that lovely smell of cooking. Its an almost primitive, primeval sort of thing, she reflects.
Shaw House, where she also remembers dressing up in the attic from the contents of old steamer trunks, is now converted into several individual houses and cottages: something Angela discovered when moved one day to refresh her memories of it on Google Earth. Gone were the pigsties and coach house and mounting blocks that she remembered, though the nineteenth century conservatory remained. Its the way things go, basically, she says philosophically, but I was disappointed to find no beautiful railings and iron gates.
She hasnt been back to Melbourne for some time, not since the deaths of the uncle and aunt who took on the house after her grandparents died. Angelas own family moved to Castle Donington in her teens. Her father, Arthur, was a teacher of engineering drawing at Bemrose School in Derby, a job for which he valiantly retrained after being put out of work during the great slump of the 1930s. As a mechanically-minded young man in the Twenties, he had learned to drive the car his father had bought before showing his grandfather how to drive it himself.
He did so well, she says with great affection of her father, who lived to be almost 100 and whose sister is still alive at 103. He wasnt a natural or typical teacher; he was very gentle, but they were so respectful of him. Her mother, Hilda, enjoyed being a member of Derby Poetry Society and was very immersed in the WI, where she ran the drama group, producing and performing plays. It was a tremendous thing, Angela reflects, remembering her mothers pleasure at going on courses to the WIs Denman College. Thinking about England after the war, so many of the women were stuck in their homes and not able to express themselves other than being someones wife.
She went to Parkfield Cedars school in Derby and then to Ashby de la Zouch Girls School, where the head of drama advised her to pursue acting as a career. She won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, which also equipped students to teach something which put her parents minds at rest and where she was awarded the Shakespeare Prize and the Broadcasting Prize. She went into repertory theatre before presenting Playschool, doing TV commercial voiceovers and taking leading roles in the 1980s ITV comedy series, Life Begins at Forty and Third Time Lucky.
She loves Derbyshire: the gentler landscape around Melbourne, the dramatic scenery of the Edges and the Peak, and the proliferation of stately homes, of which Haddon Hall remains the favourite, for its kitchens and for the mellowness of its stone. Its back to the kitchen being the hub of the home, a subject beloved by her favourite French painter, Chardin. I think it all comes from loving the stone of Derbyshire, she suggests. We love the comfort of dry stone walls and similarly we love the island of Menorca, because the stone walls there remind me of Derbyshire. We just dont understand, do we, whats in our blood and what were made up of?
She and her husband, the former BBC newsreader, Peter Bolgar, now live in a 17th century mill house on the Suffolk border. Its 150 miles from the BBC studios in Birmingham where The Archers is recorded, necessitating a stay in the city when the script requires her which is pretty often, really, given the Aldridge familys prominence in the storylines. Jennifers a bit of a monster but she means terribly well, Angela says of her character. The BBCs thumbnail sketch of Jennifer suggests she is, Capable, caring, family oriented, well groomed and more intelligent than many people are prepared to admit. And we always say, under the cashmere there beats a heart of gold.
It is fun, she acknowledges, valuing the closeness to fellow actors like Paddy Greene, who also comes from Derbyshire and who, as Jill Archer, has been in the radio show for even longer than Angela. Weve got our friends from way back, and know all our trials and tribulations and our families and the things that go right and wrong, she says with affection. There were 21 members in the cast when I joined. Now there are almost 80, though theyre not necessarily going to be used all the time and so you might not meet your friends for several months, she says, lamenting the day when the BBC studios moved from Pebble Mill to the more impersonal surroundings of Birminghams Mailbox.
At home, relaxation comes in the form of lovely walks, cooking and baking and pottering in the garden, and visiting our daughter in Sussex. The couples daughter is a GP with a toddler and a baby; their two sons, one an architect and one a financier, have eight children between them, so it can be quite a houseful on their frequent get-togethers, Angela says happily. Were very lucky they still come to us as the hub. Its a treat.
The proximity of their daughter and grandchildren is the main reason why the couple are trying to sell the house in France at which they had planned to spend an increasing amount of time when Peter retired. It is south of Bergerac in the Dordogne and close to Toulouse, and it tugs my heartstrings to be selling it, Angela says. Its medieval, with a watchtower thats even got an arrow slit. Its the most beautiful house: we bought it from a barrister whod had it for 17 years and had so cleverly and brilliantly converted it and renovated it.
Its in pristine condition, with a pavilion that looks over the pool and the valley... Right now, the wisteria will be dripping off the balconies, she says with longing. Its the perfect family home: vineyards close by and the roads and lanes are so quiet, and you can walk into these little villages between midday and two oclock and everything is closed because people take their time. France has still so much to commend it, with its food and wine and family values.
But circumstances change and you cant put things into aspic, she says briskly. We dont get out there as much as we used to, we want to spend time with the family and so the time has come to sell it. And maybe she might even get time to sort out some of the family photographs from Derbyshire that have been begging to be sorted for so many years. Ive got a fascinating picture of the cottage where my grandfather, when he married, went to live for a short time, and a cottage they used to come to in the summer, with maids standing outside it. I should get something done with them rather than hide them away, and let our children and grandchildren enjoy them.'