The Trials and Tribulations of The Archers
Content warning: Rape, domestic abuse and coersive control
The oldest soap opera in the UK, The Archers, has recently made headlines again with the culmination of the domestic abuse and coercive control story of Helen Titchenor (née Archer). This week saw a dramatic climax to this plotline with a hour-long feature episode. The story has been building up slowly for three years, as the increasing abuse of Helen by her husband Rob was painfully played out in real time.
Her manipulative husband at first suggested a change of hairstyle, then told her how to dress. He stopped her from driving after an accident, and then from working, alienated her friends, and installed tracking data on her phone. All this made her question her sanity, and climaxed dramatically on 4 April.
Helen stabbed Rob in a fight as he prevented her from leaving. At last we have had the verdict in an unprecedented hour-long episode featuring the jury’s deliberations. Finally The Archers is no longer uncool - friends have told me they have listened to The Archers, cried, and loved it.
The outgoing editor Sean O’Connor, who was previously involved in Footballer’s Wives, pulled out all the stops for his finale. The jury was star-studded, including Catherine Tate, and the actor who had played Nigel Pargetter until 2011 was brought back as a misogynistic abattoir owner (Nigel died falling off a roof in the most recent Ambridge drama to compete with Helen’s, and in doing so won the record for longest scream on Radio 4). After an intense debate between these flowery characters, it was a moment of high relief when she was announced not guilty.
As it developed, the Helen and Rob storyline was divisive. Editor O’Connor had formerly produced EastEnders, and was criticised for sensationalising the show. The storylines have elements of Shakespeare and Hardy: coincidence, fate, bullying. He now returns to EastEnders as executive producer; it appears that editing The Archers is a tough job.
After 60 years, it has a dedicated fanbase and the scriptwriters’ every move is analysed on social media. Some listeners were left unhappy with the dramatic turns. On the Today programme this week a listener asked O’Connor if the ‘EastEnders experiment’ was now over, and could he “have The Archers back please?” O’Connor responded, “They’ve had The Archers for the past three years to be honest.”
In fact, in The Archers’ first episode in 1950, Peggy (who is still in Ambridge) left Jack because he was an abusive alcoholic. The idea that The Archers is all silage, harvests and flowers is not true - these things provide a dewy backdrop to the grit and drama that has always taken place.
Another TV dramatist, Huw Kennair-Jones, has now been appointed as the new Archers editor. I (crazily) met Huw this summer at a (very wild) party, and despite my fangirling he was giving nothing away about his plans.
O’Connor is a hard act to follow: he made The Archers a national talking point. The individuality of ‘the everyday story of country folk’ is that generations are affected by stories airing now. Rob is not going anywhere.
As The Archers has had a turbulent few years, I doubt the fun is about to stop.