Just when you think you understand Britain, all your expectations get turned on their head. In a highly urbanised, high-tech obsessed country, a large proportion of the population has been on tenterhooks about a radio soap opera about a farming community.
The Archers is a British institution. It has been broadcast six days a week on BBC Radio 4 since 1951, making it the longest running radio series in the world. The series writers pride themselves on the accurate portrayal of agricultural themes — in fact each 12.5-minute episode credits an agricultural adviser. They would be mortified to make an error about European farming subsidies or the planting season for cabbages.
So it is already somewhat surprising that 5 million people — 8 per cent of the population — regularly tunes in, far in excess of the actual farming population (less than 1 per cent of workers).
Trouble in Ambridge
But in recent weeks the entire country seems to have been concerned with the fate of one of the series' characters, Helen Titchener, who was on trial for the attempted manslaughter of her husband, Rob. Helen had stabbed Rob, she said in self defence after years of domestic abuse.
In real life, abused spouses (or battered wives as they used to be called) don't necessarily get a sympathetic hearing in court. Just look at the Jacqueline Sauvage case in France. And Helen had the odds further stacked against her because the abuse was psychological rather than physical. The Archers writing team had started this storyline back in 2013, when the law on domestic abuse was amended to include psychological abuse.
Of course, unlike a real jury, the radio audience had been a fly on the wall during the years when Rob had slowly worn Helen down until she had no self-confidence left at all. And they had witnessed — or, rather, heard—the fateful scene when he put a kitchen knife in her hand and told her she should kill herself because he would never let her leave. Instead, when her son appeared and she feared Rob was going to hurt him, Helen snapped and turned the knife on her tormentor.
The audience had also experienced in real-time, or at least in short bursts, the five months Helen spent in detention pending trial, and the custody battles over Helen’s five-year-old son and the couple’s baby, between Rob and Helen’s parents.
So by the time the series started broadcasting the trial, there was strong public sympathy for the character, and the hashtag #FreeHelen had gone viral. The tension built through the week of broadcasts until the final, hour-long episode, the first time in 65 years the programme has varied from its format.
To put you out of your misery, Helen was acquitted, and the country breathed a collective sigh of relief. If you want to know more about the series, trial and reaction, there is plenty more on the programme website.
Domestic Abuse Charities
In the real world, there has been a 17% increase in victims coming forward to report domestic abuse during the duration of the storyline. The day of the trial verdict, £150,000 in donations were made in Helen’s name to a domestic abuse charity Refuge.
And now, things can return to a semblance of normality in Ambridge, the fictional home of The Archers. Until the writing team decides to tackle another major social issue.
All images: © BBC