The Archers has come up with the most important storyline in British culture
The irony of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers being what everyone’s talking about right now must be particularly delicious to its bosses, writers and stars. As Twitter broke on Sunday evening – that’s a technical term for ‘went pigging mental’ – over Helen stabbing her abusive partner, Rob, it is worth remembering that Keri Davies and The Archers team have endured a continuous drubbing from long-term listeners over the past two years for having the temerity to want the show to be listenable. Or exciting, perish the thought.
When the character Tony Archer was crushed by a bull in late 2014 there seemed to be some fury among fans that this incident was too random, too shocking, too unexpected. It was almost as if the bull should have made an appointment for the rampage six weeks prior to spare listeners nerves. And this came at the same time as other big storylines too. Too much! It’s just like EastEnders!
Yet in real life farming is a calamitous job, one where being crushed, ran over, poisoned, drowned or gassed is a prevalent risk. Or perhaps being made bankrupt due to supermarket pricing, or mentally ill due to loneliness and stress. I grew up in Cumbria and am a firm believer that there is almost nothing to do in tiny villages except shag, gossip and take drugs. But The Archers faithful didn’t want their sleepy soap besmirched by these matters. They liked their daily dose of Bridge Farm sleepy.
Fans felt the beauty of The Archers was that almost nothing happened at all. They liked it when Lynda Snell’s plans for an Ambridge pantomime dribbled on over 25 episodes, abbreviated by a convoluted plan to make artisan cheese. If it was up to these listeners, Helen and Rob’s slow, gradually augmenting domestic abuse storyline would never have happened. And that would have been a shame, because the medium of radio soap opera has been its perfect setting.
With its six-nights-a-week format, consisting largely of dialogue in kitchens, bedrooms and pub snugs, The Archers has nailed beautifully how love can turn, in incremental steps, into dark control. The Rob and Helen plot has not been about shoving, shouting, hostage taking or police chases. Television soap has covered domestic abuse in such a manner many times. With speech radio we have been able to focus fully on how the articulate, charming, and beautifully spoken Rob put Helen under house arrest.
Why, Rob has asked, ever so politely, insist on running a farm-shop when Helen can stay home and be a proper mother? And why wear a revealing dress to the Hunt Ball when it only invites other men’s glances? Why make powder custard with an apple pie for dinner? Is she too lazy to make her own? And why does she think he’s influencing her through tiny barbs and long silences? Is she mad? Is that it?
Perhaps this subtly shifting storyline had affected the discerning Radio 4 audience so deeply as so many of us recogise elements of it in our own lives. We think of those men and women we know who are no longer ‘allowed out’, now that they’re married or settled. All those friends no longer permitted to have friends to the house. The ones who have given up jobs or beloved hobbies on the pestering of a partner. The ones with the partners so jealous that, for an easy life, they give up on nights out.
The Archers has left us – the listener – feeling as powerless, just as we do in real life when faced with these ominous signs. Because flagging up a friend’s out of control partner will so often lead to you, the valiant White Knight, being dropped abruptly or named as the cause of their argument.
Over hundreds of episodes we have heard Helen’s friends and family attempt to tackle the Rob problem, but the innate beauty of radio drama has allowed us to hear exactly how slippery and dissembling Rob is. As a listener, it’s been common for us to hear Rob’s explanations and even wonder for ourselves whether we have the wrong end of the stick. Maybe he simply doesn’t like tarty revealing dresses or shop-bought custard? There’s no law against that.
New domestic abuse legislation
Of course, now that Helen has stabbed Rob and everyone is talking about The Archers, the complaints have begun again. The stabbing, it seems, should have been down-graded to her leaving, and someone giving him a jolly good talking to. What hope, I’ve read, does this give abused women?
But The Archers is a drama with a duty to entertain first, a medium for public service announcements after. Helen assaulting Rob means we’re now able to examine what the courts make of these grey, domestic, behind-closed-doors matters. And it could also make for a gripping courtroom tale of ‘he said, she said’.
Because I don’t believe he’s dead for a second. If the Grim Reaper came for Rob Titchener, he could most likely wiggle his way out of it.