The Archers has been prevalent in my life for an embarrassingly long time. It started as a mostly excusable accident – just catching episodes when my mum refused to talk to us at the dinner table until the signature ‘dum di dum’ theme song had played its last ‘dum’ (what a tune, by the way). Then, living abroad, I listened – but only because it was a nice way of keeping in touch with all things quaint and English (not that vegetable competitions and village fêtes opened by Kirstie Allsopp were what I missed most about home).
Then, I was undeniably a fully fledged Archers listener, speculating with friends’ parents over plans for A roads through farms, flood damage at the pub, and Helen and Rob.
I have wanted to write about The Archers’ domestic abuse storyline for a while, because increasingly the signature twee-ness has been overshadowed by the power that charismatic, evil Rob (Timothy Watson) has over his wife Helen (Louiza Patikas) – and this is really, really important.
Helen was finally in a good place when Rob weaselled into her life, and her character (yes, I do know they’re not real) hasn’t had an easy life. Her brother died in a tractor accident, her partner Greg committed suicde, she had her son Henry through IVF, and she has suffered from an eating disorder. All this in a tiny village where gossip spreads like buttercream on bake-sale cupcakes. Sorry.
Rob’s abuse was not initially explicit; he slowly isolated her from family and friends, dictated what she ate and wore, forbade her from driving, and made her question her own sanity and capability as a mother – something typically known as gaslighting. This emotional abuse culminated in Helen stabbing Rob with a kitchen knife – after he handed it to her, taunted her to commit suicide, and then threatened Henry, her son.
Rob had charmed Helen’s oblivious family – only one friend, Kirsty (my Archers feminist icon) was attempting to intervene in recent months. Now, evidence against Rob is needed, but it is mainly hearsay. His coercive control over Helen has been well disguised as affection for an unstable wife.
The uncomfortable reaction of many Archers’ fans epitomises the importance of the story. The Archers audience has an average age of 56, with many fans switching off and complaining the story belongs in EastEnders. But this is classist – domestic abuse is not an East End issue, it affects thousands; per week two women are killed by abusive partners. Listening daily (the hours I have lost to this programme, the things I could have done) has been painful because unusually for a soap it’s been played out in real time. Yet, the importance of this issue being dealt with in the mainstream with an audience that might otherwise want to close their ears is impossible to overemphasise.
When listening became agonizing, fan Paul Trueman created a JustGiving page. ‘The Helen Titchener (née Archer) Rescue Fund’ – £121,000 so far – has a resounding tagline: ’because for every fictional Helen, there are real ones.’
Undeniably there have been some stupidly ‘Ambridge’ storylines over the years. Even in the aftermath of the stabbing, drama is unfolding about shepherd’s huts and imminent celebrations of the Queen’s birthday – ‘clean for the Queen’ – are already nauseating. However, this domestic abuse storyline has been really something different.
Listen to it – it’s not twee escapism, it’s not only distraction from exams, it’s an incredibly important issue. And if anything, everyone needs to hear Rob’s voice. It is evil personified.