Norman Painting Collection

Scope and Content

MS200 comprises material by created and collected by Norman Painting during the course of his varied and productive life. A significant proportion relates to his performance as 'Phil Archer' in the long-running Radio 4 series 'The Archers', and his script writing for that series; but there is also much relating to his output as a poet, dramatist and documentary writer, to his performance in and direction of plays and to his interests in travel, gardens and gardening, charity work, and to his circle of friends.

Norman's literary work is reflected in his poetry which dates from the late1930s; and in the scripts for plays which he either wrote himself or adapted from existing works for radio broadcast, the former including 'Stories of the Saints' produced for Children's Hour in the 1950s, the latter including an adaption of Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Little Girls', aired in 1967. There are also scripts of plays in which he performed as an actor before his voice became too well known as 'Phil Archer', and papers relating to his later appearances in pantomime. His working notes include draft poems and notes of ideas and collected jottings for possible use in future literary works. There are drafts, papers and correspondence relating to his six books: 'Stories of the Saints' which was published in 1956; More Stories of the Saints, 1958'; 'St Anthony: The Man Who Found Himself', 1957; 'Forever Ambridge' , 1975, and its 1980 revision; and his autobiography, 'Reluctant Archer', 1982.

There is much material relating to Norman's involvement with 'The Archers' right from its pilot run in 1950 almost up to his death. There are copies of the first five scripts aired in January 1951, and copies of 1,144 of the 1,198 scripts written by Norman himself, under the pseudonym 'Bruno Milna', 1966-1980. Other papers relate to his publicity work and appearances at a variety of events as 'Phil Archer', and there is a quantity of fan mail, particularly dating from the the 1950s and 1960s. Photographs of himself which Norman sent out upon request to fans and photographs of other members of the cast are also included.

The correspondence in the collection is that received from a number of friends and some relations. In particular, there are the letters from Viola Barrett, an avid rose grower, 1981-2000; and letters and papers relating to Joan Hassall, the woodcut artist, 1968-1988.

Norman filed a proportion of his papers into an alphabetical filing series, and these files contain papers relating to all aspects of Norman's life. Notably there are papers relating to his purchase of the Old Rectory at Warmington in 1967; the conversion of its barn into a residence in 1983-1984; his garden, including photographs, 1967-2002; photographs and slides relating to his holidays mainly in Italy; local material relating to Leamington and elsewhere in Warwickshire; and his charity work, revealing in particular his support of the Tree Council, Age Concern Warwickshire and the Royal Agricultural Society of England, 1980s-2008.

The papers in this collection shed light on the long career of a man who was anxious to be known of as 'more than just an Archer'. Norman's early poetic and dramatic work may reflect a capability as well as a tangible academic interest in these literary genres. These later included the discipline of adapting the works of others for dramatic production on radio and of composing episodes for 'The Archers' serial to carry forward story lines and characterisations within strict 13-minute time slots. The fan mail reflects the success of 'The Archers' and its impact on the daily life of millions especially in the 1950s. The records are an interesting resource for the study of the development of an individual's literary output and performance as an actor as well as general topics including mid-20th century life and custom.

Administrative / Biographical History

Norman George Painting was born on St George's day (23 April) 1924 at Leamington Spa, the son of Harry George Painting, a railway signalman, and his wife Maud Dyde. His sister, Edna, was over six years his senior. Norman attended Milverton Junior School, moving on to Leamington College. From an early age Norman displayed enthusiasm and flair for theatrical writing, production and performance: he wrote poetry from the age of ten and wrote and produced his first full play, 'The Deception', for a school variety concert in 1938, when he was fourteen. In 1938 when the family moved to Nuneaton, for a short period Norman commuted weekly back to Leamington College, but later attended King Edward VI School in Nuneaton. He was, however, obliged to leave before completing the sixth form due to the family's financial circumstances. He took a job for three years as an assistant librarian and studied for the Library Association examinations by correspondence course.

In 1942 Norman went up to the University of Birmingham where he studied English and Anglo-Saxon, took an active part in Guild work and with BUDS (Birmingham University Dramatic Society) performed in and directed a number of dramatic productions. He was not called up for military service due to poor eyesight and flat feet, and worked his way through university in a number of ways including by doing extra fire-watching. Having gained a first class degree, in 1946 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he tutored students of Exeter College in Anglo-Saxon whilst himself researching Old English poetic diction. In 1947, upon advice, he changed his course of research to romantic poetry and drama, writing a dissertation on the rewriting of Coleridge's 'Osorio'. With OUDS [Oxford University Dramatic Society] he joined a tour to France in 1948, and even after leaving Oxford he was invited back on its tour to America in 1950 in a company which included Robert Robinson, John Schlesinger and Peter Parker. His dissertation was failed; but by this time, 1950, he had already been working for some five years for the BBC as an actor and poetry reader. This involvement developed into writing news talks, features, children's programmes, poetry, original drama and adaptions and serials both in his own name and as 'Philip Bentinck', throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He later also wrote under the name of 'Bruno Milna', a name known to millions of followers of 'The Archers' radio serial, for which he was to write over 1,000 scripts between 1966 and 1982, which earned him a Writers' Guild Award in 1967.

Television documentaries followed, and Norman made three films for 'A Summer of Gardens' (1975-1977); 'One Man's Warwickshire' (1976); 'Gardens of Delight' (1978); 'A Prospect of Gardens', (1979); and 'The Garden Makers', (1980). He was chairman of 'The Garden Game', a quiz he had himself devised, between 1975 and 1980; and made other appearances on programmes including 'Midweek', 'Stop the Week', 'Quote ... Unquote', 'Call My Bluff' and 'The Garden Quiz'. He was the subject of 'This is Your Life' on ITV in 1991 and of 'Desert Island Discs' in December 2000.

As well as numerous plays and adaptions for stage and radio and documentaries for television, Norman wrote six books: 'Stories of the Saints' (1956); 'More Stories of the Saints' (1958); 'St Anthony, the Man Who Found Himself' (1957); 'Forever Ambridge: twenty five years of The Archers' (1975); which was updated as 'Forever Ambridge, thirty years of The Archers' (1980); and his autobiography 'Reluctant Archer' (1982). He had hoped to write more: he advanced work for a book about his dogs and garden in Warmington under the title 'Gardens and Cavaliers' but it was not accepted by the publisher. Towards the end of his life he was actively gathering material together for a book on his childhood and early life, a project to which he alludes in his 1982 autobiography.

Music played a large part in Norman's life. He sung and learned to play the piano as a boy, and played provided the musical accompaniment in his own pantomimes. His later compositions included the signature tune to the radio series he wrote in the 1950s, 'The Incredible Adventures of Simple Simon'. In 1954 Norman was co-founder, with conductor Brian Priestman, of the Midland Opera Company 'Opera Da Camera' which produced a number of performances under the patronage of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury, holding meetings at their home in Ingestre, Staffordshire; he was also to be heard playing the organ and piano in his character in a number of episodes of 'The Archers'. He amassed a large collection of recordings of classical music on records and CDs, and had a number of 1970s-1980s LP records, some of which he was introduced to by his friend Trevor Harrison.

On the domestic front, Norman moved from London to Warmington in Warwickshire in 1967, purchasing 'The Old Rectory' there. He developed its gardens, which became the venue for a number of village events, and installed an indoor swimming pool, which was to become a financial burden. In the later 1970s he began on the conversion of a barn in the grounds into living accommodation; Norman sold off the old rectory for financial reasons in 1983 and moved into the barn, which he continued to convert. Norman never married; but from their early years grew close to his sister's two children.

Norman was made an OBE for services to radio in 1976; that same year he became an honorary life governor of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, in recognition of his 25 years' service to agriculture in the United Kingdom. In 1988 he received an honorary degree from the University of Birmingham. He was made an honorary member of High Table at Christ Church, Oxford; was awarded the Personality Award by Birmingham Press Club and in 2008 was awarded a star in Birmingham's 'Walk of Stars'.

Shortly after having completed the writing for this autobiography Norman sustained five heart attacks. He recovered, but suffered further health complications over the next years. To accommodate Norman's multiple heart by-pass operation in 1990 'Phil Archer' accompanied his radio wife on an extended holiday, but returned to play his full part in 'The Archers', with his final contribution being broadcast just days before his death.

Norman Painting died in on 29 October 2009. In March 2010 his ashes were scattered at 'Painting's Plantation' an area in the grounds of Campion School, Leamington Spa, where trees had been planted by the Tree Council to mark Norman's 80th birthday, when he was its vice president.

Sources: 'Reluctant Archer' by Norman Painting (Granta Editions, 1982); 'Forever Ambridge' by Norman Painting (Michael Joseph, 1980); obituaries published in the 'Independent' and the 'Telegraph' newspapers; autobiographical notes and other material within MS200: the Norman Painting Collection


Within fifteen sections, the collection has been listed to reflect Norman Painting's own arrangement of his papers, retaining the titles of his original files. Most of the papers were stored in hanging files in filing cabinets, some of which stood near his swimming pool. Early scripts and other literary works were kept together and other material was fitted into an alphabetical sequence of files, some arranged chronologically. It would appear that as Painting's health failed, less attention was given to the methodical filing of papers, though most were still placed in large envelopes with brief titles jotted on. The fifteen sections are:

  • 1 Diaries
  • 2 Childhood and school life papers
  • 3 Librarianship papers
  • 4 University of Birmingham papers
  • 5 University of Oxford papers
  • 6 Family history papers
  • 7 Papers of Harry George Painting
  • 8 Papers of Maud Painting
  • 9 Miscellaneous personalia of Norman Painting
  • 10 Literary work and performance
  • 11 'The Archers'
  • 12 Correspondence
  • 13 Alphabetical filing series
  • 14 Recordings
  • 15 Notes and papers found loose inside book collection

Access Information

Access restrictions to some parts of this collection is restricted under the Data Protection Act 1998; these items include diaries and some personal correspondence. This closure is indicated at File and Item level. The remainder is open to all registered readers.

Acquisition Information

The collection was acquired in four instalments, three during the lifetime of Norman Painting (2005/4, 2005/66 and 2005/78); and one (2009/52) as a bequest in his will by which he left his manuscripts, letters and such books as may be selected to the University of Birmingham.

Other Finding Aids

Please see the full catalogue for further details.

Archivist's Note

Collection arranged and described by Anne George, 2011-2012, in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; and in-house cataloguing guide-lines.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of any material from the collection must be sought in advance in writing from the Director of Special Collections (email: Identification of copyright holders of unpublished material is often difficult. Special Collections will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Custodial History

The collection was previously in the custody of Norman Painting.

Related Material

The I. A. Shapiro Collection, University papers US79, contains an examination paper written by Norman Painting, December 1944.The Theatre Collection, MS38, includes papers relating to a stage version of 'The Archers', 1953 (MS38/546)A number of objects, mainly commemorative items, but including Norman Painting's mortarboard and a bust sculpted by Gwen Hirst [Allensby] in 1976, were also left to the University of Birmingham and are included in its Research and Cultural Collections.Norman Painting also bequeathed 'such of my books as may be selected by it to the University of Birmingham': these are currently undergoing sorting in the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections. (In 1995 Painting had invited a Hagley book-dealer to view his collection and had sold off his most valuable books).