'The Archers'

How The Archers’ Helen Titchener Has Britain Talking About Domestic Violence

The Daily Beast

April 25, 2016

If President Obama really wanted to endear himself to Britain, he should have stayed out of the debate on whether the UK should exit Europe, and instead simply addressed the cameras thus: “Free Helen Titchener. Justice For The Blossom Hill Cottage One.”

Had he done so, the President would have joined the five million-plus fans of BBC Radio 4’s rural-set soap The Archers, desperate for justice for the abused, and presently jailed wife, of all-round bastard and premium villain Rob Titchener.

The domestic violence storyline enveloping the program presently—specifically based around ‘coercive control’, recently outlawed in the UK for real—has caused headlines and outrage, a spike in viewing figures, and a million think pieces.

After years of mind control, abuse, and mind games, Helen stabbed Rob a few weeks ago in the kitchen of their misleadingly, idyllically named Blossom Hill Cottage when he threatened the safety of her son Henry.

Helen was arrested, Rob survived, and now she is as isolated as she ever was, with many believing her simply to be the unstable aggressor and Rob the victim—we listeners know the opposite to be true. Indeed we, bless you and damn you dear radio, are the only ones who know it.

And now Rob is home, with his awful mother and accomplice-in-malevolence, Ursula. For their next diabolical trick? It would seem to be to kidnap little Henry from the care of Helen’s parents, with the intention to mold him into the perfect witness against his mother.

Even at the best of times, or the most mundane, being a fan of The Archers is its own unique torture and masochism.

For with this radio drama set in the heart of England in the fictional village of Ambridge, we imagine the characters all uniquely; so over five million listeners have singular visions and renderings of faces and bodies, and of the cycle of gossip, church hall meetings, and confrontations in pubs, kitchens, and fields—this is compulsive enough even when the program dilly-dallies around harvest festivals, secret affairs, Lynda Snell’s play productions, crop rotation, and milk yields.

But for the last three years, millions of very outraged people have heard Rob getting away thus far with—grrrrr—so many terrible, awful things. We the listeners have been privy to Rob’s appalling behavior while the other characters remain clueless. So who can save Helen now, and finally deliver the come-uppance so long overdue for her despicable husband?

America, if you can stand 12 minutes of drama about British rural life, six nights a week, your support for the ‘Blossom Hill Cottage One’ would be appreciated.

Perhaps Helen’s savior will be Anna Tregorran, Helen’s newly-appointed lawyer. Some bright spark has already set up a Twitter account in her name and honor, and the hopes of Britain are on Ms. Tregorran’s shoulders. No biggie.

Fans used to feel sheer dread on hearing Rob’s voice, ready to weaken Helen yet again, but now the storyline is so all-consuming that when an episode doesn’t feature it—and focuses on egg production and flower-displaying rivalries—the program’s once beguiling benignity seems hopelessly ill-fit for purpose.

We want payback to be visited resoundingly on Rob—really, all his crimes to be revealed, nothing less—and total humiliation for him, and justice for Helen.

Fans have screamed and thrown things at the radio, and taken to social media to vent their frustration and hatred of Rob—and, for many people who have been in abusive relationships, to recognize their own experiences in Helen’s.

For many years—The Archers began in 1951, which makes 17,962 episodes and counting—the program was shamelessly bucolic and farming-centric, until modern times, and modern soap opera concerns, could be ignored no longer. Over the last 30 years, slowly and quietly at first, there have been illicit affairs, homosexuality, racism, rural poverty, suicide, jiltings at the altar, with long-term characters (Tony) perilously attacked by a bull (called Otto)—and, more fatally, crushed by an overturned tractor (Tony’s son John, in 1998), or dead after falling from a roof (oh Nigel, we miss you).

There are the rich (the Aldridges), the poor (the Grundys), and the Archers themselves, who reproduce, marry and ensure multiple crises profligately enough to ensure they, and the heartland farm of Brookfield, remain the center of the show.

But nothing has been as explosive—or as skilfully written and ruthlessly executed—as Rob’s abuse of Helen, presided over by producer Sean O’Connor. Rob’s endgame? More control, and Helen’s total submission and, it would now seem, destruction.

The source of the odd devotion from fans that radio, and radio drama, commands—it being funneled direct to individual ears and brains—is the reason the storyline involving Helen and Rob has become a national talking point: any program on radio brings an intimacy lacking in television.

One listener, Paul Trueman, ingeniously set up a fund—the Helen Titchener (nee Archer) Rescue Fund is barely £2000 ($2880) short of its £125,000 ($180,000) target for British charity Refuge, for real-life women like Helen escaping abusive partners.

In Britain, another listener, Michael Moran, has produced a range of ‘Free The Blossom Hill One’ merchandise—sadly, they don’t yet accept orders from America—with thousands of dollars in proceeds also going to Refuge.

Both are astonishing achievements, and testament to the power of the show. As fans’ tweets and responses show, Archers’ addicts love it, hate it, mock it, pastiche it, make parodic podcasts about the program, but most of all—and with no irony—are devoted to it fiercely. It can be crushingly twee, but with Helen and Rob, its narrative talons have been brute-sharp.

Some listeners have complained the storyline is too dramatic and extreme for The Archers, others that it has been strung out too long—but the program has resolutely stayed true to its pace, and the pace (sadly) of how similar real-life situations can unfold over years.

We knew that Helen and Rob were a disaster waiting to happen: it was the nature of the disaster that has proved so shocking. He was married; she, a long-tortured soul with a difficult, thorny personality and history of anorexia, was searching for a partner after her last partner killed himself.

For her, their affair was exhilarating, as she ignored every warning klaxon we heard too clearly—his mistreated and vengeful ex, Jess; Helen’s style, which he would criticize, buying her increasingly shapeless, drab clothes. His solicitousness, when she fell pregnant with their as yet-unborn baby/devil spawn, began to be just creepy.

Helen had a minor car accident, which Rob saw as an excuse to pressure her into stopping driving. He wouldn’t let her work. He used her past eating disorders against her, and made her doubt her own sanity. He began to obstruct her relationship with her young son Henry, and menaced the little boy too.

And then one night, and again radio does this oddly more shockingly than TV, we imagine he raped her. Recently, he did it again, Helen just moaning desperately “No” as he did so.

Then, as if things weren’t grand guignol enough, Rob moved his evil mother Ursula into the house, and she too began to turn the screw harder on Helen. Henry was mysteriously scalded in a too-hot bath; possessions were moved around the house; Ursula controlled and monitored Helen’s movements when Rob wasn’t there; and both mother and son plotted to send Henry away to school behind Helen’s back.

And quite besides all this, Rob may have been responsible for the most disastrous effects of a flood which submerged Ambridge; he may have killed or somehow disposed of a worker; he cheated at cricket (a true English crime); he attacked a hunt saboteur; and he schemed to destroy the wedding day of the village’s gay couple, Adam and Ian. (Ian was one of Helen’s best friends, until Rob sought to destroy that relationship too.)

Even as Helen’s family watched, Rob isolated Helen from them too, and so we cheered when Kirsty—Helen’s close friend, whom he naturally despises—returned to the village and realized something was wrong with Helen.

Rob has done all he can to destroy that friendship too—but Kirsty doughtily kept persisting to see her pal, finally delivering a domestic violence charity telephone number to her and a secret phone.

Post-stabbing, Rob has lied to police to claim Helen and Kirsty are lesbian lovers. Cue more things thrown at our radios. The squelchy stabbing sound into his despicable flesh was achieved by plunging a knife into a three to four-day-old watermelon, O’Connor has said (the sound effects tricks of The Archers for farm gates and walking in mud are their own genius).

O’Connor has said the storyline has months and months to run. Unlike a TV drama—after The Archers he will show-run EastEnders, the BBC’s flagship TV soap opera—this was no three-month arc, with a satisfying resolution to cap it. O’Connor has said that, in consultation with experts and charities, the show decided to play the relationship out, and the drip-drip of coercive control, in real-time. That has bought both a depth of raw emotional truth to the drama, while being unbearable to listen to the incremental erosion of Helen due to Rob’s insidious undermining and control of her.

O’Connor has also indicated there will be a satisfying conclusion to the Helen and Rob storyline, but that it will not come soon or easy. Helen is so traumatized by her abuse she cannot vocalize anything to police, or—yet—to Anna Tregorran.

Rob and his mother continue to hold sway, while Helen’s family members are dazed. Pat, her mother, is a longtime feminist, and so listeners were already disbelieving she wouldn’t notice anything was wrong with her daughter or partner, but the program’s makers have maintained such can happen when a master of coercive control like Rob does his worst.

Pat has thus far been despairing and wet (though Henry’s smooth abduction by Rob and Ursula will hopefully, finally, make her butch up).

She, her husband Tony, and their son Tom (to make matters more complicated, he’s Kirsty’s ex, and so the two didn’t communicate their suspicions of Rob to each other) are trying to both help Helen and understand what has happened, and what might have happened to her right under their noses.

Pat feels terrible guilt. Kirsty, our fabulous Joan of Arc, remains resolute in her support, and resolute that everyone else remain resolute—even as a catatonic Helen shuns all help and contact from her jail cell. And Rob looks set to scheme, lie, and endanger Helen from afar. So, make our ‘special relationship’ special again America: listen to The Archers, and support the fight for justice for Helen Titchener.