It’s been going on for months now and I must make a confession. I secretly endure a nightly battering in the privacy of my home; it’s been relentless, torturous and psychologically damaging. But before anyone rushes to rescue me or phones a government helpline, fearing I am the victim of some dastardly wife beater — I should explain that the culprit is Radio 4’s The Archers and its relentless and addictive domestic abuse storyline.
My torment was supposed to end last Sunday night, with the conclusion of Helen Titchener’s trial for stabbing her bullying, much-hated husband Rob. When the jury foreman announced not guilty, I was with the rest of the nation, roaring ‘Yes!’ And yet, straight afterwards, I came over all queasy as Rob resumed his threats… Just as Helen has been a victim of manipulation for a whole 18 months, so have we, the listeners. When will it ever stop?
Thanks to a script that denies its audience any choice about who they should sympathise with, what they should think and, even more galling for me, what political position to take, lately The Archers has started to come across like propaganda rather than drama. It no longer ends with that jaunty theme tune but the sober caveat: ‘If you’ve been affected by any of the subjects raised in the programme, details of organisations offering information and support are available…’ Certain episodes have amounted to little more than adverts for the National Domestic Violence Helpline. Ironically, of course, this was why the series was invented: to teach men returning home how to farm after the second world war. But I am less convinced of the ethics of ramming home heavily politicised messages today.
If the BBC has rules banning product placement, it is far less squeamish about policy placement, and so we have been bludgeoned into accepting the importance of new government legislation (in particular the new 2015 law against coercive control) and instructed on how to seek help, by means of Helen. The Archers seems intent on making its listeners extra vigilant about the sinister goings on behind resolutely middle-class closed doors. Drama should ring the bell of truth: it’s when it bangs a bloody loud policy drum that I get anxious.
Initially, the Helen and Rob story had me riveted. It started out with drip-drip revelations about Rob’s true, toxic nature. Too soon, though, such subtlety dwindled. I first realised things had gone awry when I mentioned to some friends that as a character, Helen had always got on my nerves, and they promptly rounded on me and accused me of victim blaming. Never mind that I am not, and never will be, a fan of ever-suffering, holier-than-thou organic types. Never mind that Helen is fictional. I was still told it was ‘dangerous’ to focus on Helen’s faults because this could deter real women from coming forward to report real-life abuse.
My friends are not alone in blurring the boundary between fact and fiction: a #FreeHelen hashtag has been trending on Twitter, while my Facebook timeline is full of people showing ‘Solidari-tea’ with real-life Helens. The BBC employed a court artist who gave us daily pictorial images of figures in a make-believe dock. The trial has also been used as a lobbying tool by NGOs looking to score political points about how ‘17 per cent of refuges have been shut since the Tories re-entered government six years ago’, together with demands that Helen’s story proves that ‘cuts that threaten women’s lives must be reversed’. Even the usually cool-headed legal profession has treated the story as faction. Nigel Pascoe, a barrister from the New Forest, offered Mrs Titchener representation in court. ‘I know we are not allowed to tout,’ he claimed. ‘But I am more than prepared to represent Helen, along with most of the criminal bar.’ Jeannie Mackie, of Doughty Street Chambers, complained that Helen’s barrister wasn’t making ‘a very good job’ of the defence. Meanwhile Rodney Warren, chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, complained that the role of Helen’s solicitor has been neglected: ‘It’s been very unfortunate that the storyline has given the wrong view of the criminal justice process [and]… is a missed opportunity to demonstrate properly how the profession works.’
What used to be a 15-minute soap opera about how to raise pigs is now being used to ridicule the police for failing to use the new law on coercive control, which Theresa May brought in when she was Home Secretary. The legislation recently hit the headlines after a Freedom of Information request revealed that eight out of 22 police forces in England and Wales haven’t charged anyone with the offence since it came into effect in December. Joan Smith, chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls panel, concluded: ‘It seems listeners of The Archers have a more sophisticated grasp of domestic abuse than some police forces.’ And as for those of us who opposed the new law (on civil liberty grounds), we will no doubt now be accused of betraying potential Helens everywhere. That’s the problem with politics via drama: it’s unaccountable, and you can’t argue back.
The Beeb proudly boasts of the impact that The Archers has had off-air — citing a 17 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Violence Helpline. Louiza Patikas, the actress who plays Helen, seems to have gone from thespian to missionary, declaring that she hoped her character’s acquittal would mean that more victims will come forward for help: ‘There are people who understand what you’re experiencing and millions of members of the public who are rooting for you, as the reaction to this storyline has demonstrated.’
But why should we accept that it is a good thing to invite greater scrutiny of our personal relationships by the authorities? There is something too pat and right-on about the characterisation of St Helen and the secretly satanic Rob. It feels more like an exercise in box-ticking than in dramatic depth. I realise I am putting myself in the devil’s camp when I resist joining in campaigners’ enthusiasm for the way the story has ‘instigated cultural change’ and ‘opened people’s eyes to a form of abuse they might not have been aware of before’. But I am worried it may lead millions of listeners to become gripped by the domestic equivalent of Project Fear, starting to see abuse where none exists…
The columnist Grace Dent has already insisted that ‘we all know a Helen and Rob’ and that the soap opera has ‘nailed beautifully how love can turn, in incremental steps, into dark control’. No doubt that can and does happen, but far more rarely than this ‘everyday story of domestic abuse’ implies.
Just to declare — I love The Archers. Though I came to it late in life I listen to it religiously. But it needs now to back off before it fuels a full-scale moral panic. As a nation, do we really want to be encouraged to spy on our neighbours and families for suspicious signs of smooth talkers in seemingly blissful relationships? Do we really want to be twitching our curtains and making paranoid misanthropic judgments about the private lives of others? Rob has punished us all for long enough. Bring back the non--metaphorical pigs, I say.