The Archers is celebrating its 55th birthday. Rural Affairs Reporter Sarah Probert looks back on its success...

When ten actors crammed into an office above a car showroom in Birmingham's Broad Street in 1950, little did they realise they were creating a great British institution.

The rural soap, which started out to help the Government distribute advice and encouragement to the nation's farmers, has become the longest-running soap opera in the world.

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Among the original cast was June Spencer, who plays pensioner Peggy Woolley.

She entered the series as a sprightly young woman from the city married to Jack Archer.

"It was very different then than it is today in a great many ways. There were ten of us in the original cast in Broad Street over a car showroom. We recorded on gramophone records. We went to Pebble Mill a short time later," she explained.

"We started when there were a great many farmers in the country. They, of course, have grown fewer and fewer and farmers have had to diversify and so we have had to in the programme as well. It is still a farming programme but it is a lot more about personalities and characters.

"In the beginning, when the Government sent out pamphlets it wanted farmers to read and they were either too busy or too lazy to read them, we worked the information into the programme.

"I think we followed real life extremely well, having a farming adviser to help with the story lines. We have done organic farming and we have dealt with the GM crops issue."

Along with Norman Painting, Mrs Spencer is the only other current cast member to have been in the pilot episode in 1950 and the first national episode broadcast on January 1, 1951. She was cast for her part before she had even been asked if she wanted to join the programme.

She learnt of her fate while queuing in the BBC Birmingham canteen when she was asked: "You're going to be in The Archers, aren't you?" Her response was: "Am I? What are The Archers?"

Due to the small cast, she was often asked to play a number of characters, putting on different accents for the parts.

"I had to play a rather nasty Irish girl called Rita Flynn as well as a Mrs Benlow but nobody ever realised it was me."

From ten original cast members, the soap now has more than 50 actors and has covered gripping story lines including abortion, death, imprisonment and rural racism.

The most provocative storyline of 2005 involved a tug-of-love between Eddie Grundy's sons Will and Ed and Will's estranged wife Emma, who resides with Ed in a caravan with her and Will's son.

Last year was also one of the saddest for the drama, when actress Mary Wimbush, who played Julia Pargetter, collapsed and died after recording an episode.

Long-serving actress Pamela Craig left the programme after 31 years, forcing producers to kill off her character Betty Tucker last month.

Meanwhile, a Gloucestershire man successfully bid #17,000 for his wife to have a speaking part in The Archers.

Speaking on reaching another milestone, Julie Beckett, senior producer, said: "It's always good when it passes another landmark - we're proud to be 55!

"With our creative writers, talented actors, and a great production team we're all set for the anniversaries to come."