A Local Archer
Archers actor Bob Arnold, born in Asthall and resident of Burford, remembered.
The Archers was first broadcast as a regular item on 1 January 1951, after five pilots programmes the previous year, and celebrates its 70th birthday this month. It has now notched up over 19,300 episodes and still has five million listeners. Initially billed “an everyday story of country folk”, it is now described as “a contemporary drama in a rural setting”. In 2019 a panel of 46 broadcasting industry experts named it as the second-greatest radio programme of all time. (The greatest, since you ask, was Desert Island Discs which started in 1942 and compared with this The Archers is a mere stripling). Most of that is well known. What may be less familiar is the story of one former actor in the saga.
Bob Arnold played the part of Tom Forrest, the son of a gamekeeper who became a gamekeeper, from 1951 to 1997. Bob was described as the last authentic countryman in the cast. When it started the programme had agricultural storylines about Foot and Mouth and rotation of crops with a view to educating townsfolk about the mysteries of country life. Forrest was not a member of the Archer family who have always been at the centre of the story in the fictional village of Ambridge but his sister Doris was married to Dan Archer, the patriarch of the clan, and he was “Uncle Tom” to their descendants.
George Richard Arnold, to use his official name, was born on 27 December 1910 at Asthall, where his father ran the local pub. That made him an exact contemporary of Diana Mitford who spent her early years up the road at Asthall Manor. He attended the village school until it closed when he was 11, and then the school at Swinbrook until he was 14, when he became a butcher's boy in Burford. At the age of 22 he spent 15 months in hospital with tuberculosis of the spine before working for Oxfordshire County Council painting white lines on the roads.
His break came in 1937 with a radio programme called In the Cotswolds, on the strength of which he became a regular entertainer, singing at village concerts and parties. After war service in the RAF in Heywood, Lancashire (his TB barred him from active service, and he was his commanding officer's batman), he went back to the BBC for Children's Hour and Through the Garden Gate. In 1948 he married Dorothy Coleridge. They had one daughter. Dorothy died in 1990.
When The Archers was mooted he was keen to join the team, but Geoffrey Baseley, the creator of the programme, thought his accent was "too recognisable”. (An alternative view is that his strong Cotswold accent was thought to be difficult for listeners to understand). It was not until March 1951, three months after the programme began, that he was enrolled as the gamekeeper Tom Forrest. He figured in various storylines and also introduced the Sunday catch-up omnibus edition for he programme when he would talk to listeners directly about the seasons, the behaviour of the wildlife in the woods and fields, or reminisce on days and events in his lifetime and regularly recall old sayings and proverbs. "The warm friendly `burr' to his voice was just what was needed," wrote Baseley.
Tom Forrest was married to the enigmatic Pru and it was a running gag that she was regularly referred to in the programme but never spoke. (See also Mrs Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and “ ’Er indoors” in Minder.). She finally found her voice in the 10,000th edition in 1989 when it was noticed that she sounded very similar to Judi Dench. . The popularity of Tom Forrest led to Bob receiving many invitations. "Before long if you wasn't out every Saturday opening a fete or something between April and September, you wondered what was happening," said Bob. "Then, of course, you went on the autumn and Christmas bazaars."
Bob Arnold made a sideline in folk music, contributing to such BBC programmes as Folk on 2, and collecting songs remembered from his Asthall pub youth ("Boozing, Jolly Old Boozing" was one) for recordings. In 1972 he produced an album, Mornin' All (picking up his Sunday morning catchphrase), with the Yetties. He made his last appearance on The Archers at Christmas 1997. He was singing folksongs in the Ambridge pub, the Bull.
Bob and Dorothy bought one of the houses at the top of Barns Lane in Burford on the west side, and called it "Arnridge", as a combination of Arnold and Ambridge. They were faithful regulars at Evensong in the Parish Church most Sundays, and we are told that it was always a treat when Bob read a lesson. He had a notable collection of Roman coins, some of which he had found himself at Asthall. He became very knowledgeable on the subject, but security concerns led him to sell most of them. His fine singing voice was much admired. He was a loyal member of the Buffaloes Society, and attended meetings at the Royal Oak in Witney Street.
Bob died on 27 August 1998 at his daughter’s home at Salisbury.
Editors - with thanks to Cedric Reavely for his help.