The Archers is more than just a cosy fireside soap opera and the current Helen and Rob Titchener domestic abuse storyline has proven that. The much-loved show, it has five million loyal listeners, was created in 1951 to provide information to farmers and whilst some would argue that it has lost its true essence and become “another overly-dramatic soap opera”, surely the fact that it is now disseminating crucial information to domestic abuse sufferers and raising listeners’ awareness is just a part of its evolution?
What makes The Archers unique as a soap opera is that it is a radio show – the characters and setting are all in our imaginations and listening to it via the radio or podcast is extremely intimate. Listening to the show, it often feels like we are actually there watching the sun come up over Lakey Hill, smelling the delicious baking of Jill Archer and watching, terrified, as Rob hacks away at Helen’s soul chop by evil chop. Indeed, listeners have recently reported suffering from acute FuriousAtRobitis which symptoms include the overwhelming urge to grab the kitchen knife every time Rob says “good girl” or tells Helen he is only “doing what is best for her”.
Dramas, in particular soap operas, require a villainous character and from the moment he appeared on the scene in 2013, Rob Titchener has fitted the bill completely. Listening back, it is not hard to see the beginnings of Rob’s “evilness” although at the time it was easy to think that he was just a bit of a dick rather than an absolute evil bastard. With each episode Rob’s true nature came out and it led to a string of online accusations against him every time something bad happened in Ambridge. When Stefan went missing – Rob was accused of murder. When the culvert was found to have been blocked – Rob was accused of causing the flood. When the Fairbrother’s hen-house was burned down – Rob was accused of arson. Whether all of this turns out of be true in the dramatic denouement of his character is yet to be determined.
Helen Archer has been no stranger to tragedy; her older brother died in a farming accident, her boyfriend committed suicide, she grappled with anorexia and faced ostracism from her family when she decided to have her son, Henry, through a sperm donor. However, throughout these storylines her inner essence, that of a strong, self-assured and shrewd business woman, had remained largely intact. The systematic and cruel manipulation by Rob has been heart-breaking, and listening to him turning her friends and Henry against her and convincing her family that she is mentally unstable has been truly heart-wrenching.
The fact that the Helen and Rob storyline has played out in real time has been part of its success. As in most domestic abuse cases, it started off small, for example in the New Year 2014/15 episode where Rob dictated what Helen was to wear to the ball. Rob’s control and manipulation gradually increased to a frightening level, manifesting itself most chillingly in The Archers’ first marital rape scene. This simply would not work on a televised soap opera like Eastenders because the storylines are required to be short and sharp to keep us focused. Also,this particular storyline works on The Archers because it is rare to have one episode focused on a single plot. The charm of the show lies in the fact that one minute we will be frothing at the mouth listening to Rob’s latest put down and the next, laughing at Lynda Snell’s ridiculousness.
Thankfully, the end is nigh; in last Friday’s episode Helen made the call to a helpline and it provoked such sweet relief and happiness that, for once, didn’t instantly fade the moment Rob entered the room. The fact that someone who also listened to this episode could have identified with Helen and been inspired to make a similar call is the most important part of this crazy, horrendous and deeply sad storyline. Indeed, the fact that someone in The Archers Twitter Community began a “Save Helen Titchener Fund”, which has so far raised an astonishing £75,000 for Refuge, is one of the most incredible things to come out of a soap opera storyline.
The Archers is more than an “old lady programme” because it is a contemporary soap opera set in a traditional and stereotypical British community. Whilst the Helen and Rob Titchener domestic abuse storyline has been a roller-coaster of a journey, it has been excellently executed and bereft of unnecessary over-dramatization or hurried along. Yes, it has been a slow burn and some listeners have developed Tourette’s syndrome, but the end is nigh and surely Rob will suffer a horrendously painful death – as every evil villain should.