THE Archers is a soap for people who say they don’t like soaps, the snob’s soap if you like. And I can say that because I’m one of them.
For years I listened to the omnibus edition on Radio Four every Sunday, almost as a form of worship. I have been losing that religion lately and more often listen to Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music instead, although I still drift in and out of the nightly instalments of the BBC Radio Four tale of farming folk.
The latest episode, usually 15 minutes long, ran to an hour, the longest episode ever. How odd for The Archers, that humdrum village of horticultural dull lives punctuated by moments of high drama. But the culmination of the programme’s latest plot didn’t concern crop rotation or what best to feed the pigs. No, this was Judgment Day in the trial of Helen Titchener.
Sixty minutes of gripping radio as Helen – and the world of Ambridge watchers – awaited the jury’s decision on her alleged attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob – a relatively new character who, over the space of a couple of years or so, turned into the biggest villain in the history in Archers’ history.
The storyline hasn’t pleased everyone: misery upon misery was piled on the shoulders of Helen (Archer as was) for years. Wasn’t there a partner who shot himself, or something? And all that cheese making, too! Anyway, Helen found herself in an abusive relationship with a controlling, nasty and yet plausible man.
For month after miserable month, only the listener and Helen knew what Rob was like. To everyone else in Ambridge he appeared the perfect partner.
This was clever writing; the story of cruel intimacy a long time to play out. It was also quite a gamble: the rising ride of Helen’s misery put some people off The Archers, for ever in some cases. All that intense emotional claustrophobia made for a difficult listen.
Helen became a figurehead for the victims of domestic abuse in a story that seemed horribly real, for the simple reason that it was horribly real. Rape was a hinted at along the way, and much was made of the endless diminishment of Helen’s character and confidence as she succumbed to the controlling strictures of a man clever in his cruelness.
In the end she stabbed Rob. He handed her a knife during a row, telling her to kill herself, then ran onto the blade in her hand (at least I think that’s what happened: you can never be quite sure when you betray your faith and wander the wavelengths in search of music instead.
The longest episode in the programme’s 65 years mostly took the form of a jury room discussion. Actor Nigel Havers guest-starred as the nasty chairman of the jury, a man whom, it transpired, was another version of Rob Titchener, at least in his bitterness towards women.
Anyway, after much deliberation, and the possibility of more Helen-shaped misery, she was acquitted of attempted murder and wounding with intent. And hooray for that: any other verdict would have been a travesty. Although don’t expect everything to run smoothly for Helen from now on: in a mean little coda following the trial Rob confronted her, suggesting more bumps along the farm track ahead.
We listened while we ate a stir-fry with our home-from-uni daughter, who is more of an EastEnders and Corrie girl. She wasn’t impressed with the idea of a whole hour of the Archers, but listened politely, nonetheless.
Other jurors were played by those well-known actors Dame Eileen Atkins and Catherine Tate (who, annoyingly, sounded just like Catherine Tate) and there was a kind of Archers in-joke: one juror was played by Graham Seed, who for 27 years played the Nigel Pargetter character until the scriptwriters had him fall from a roof to his death in a storm.
It was a cruel end for a good character, a bumbling toff and a decent sort. But Nigel did at least leave the airwaves with the longest scream in radio history, one that might be reshaped as a sigh of relief for Helen’s release.
All together now, Archers fans: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
Was the three-year abuse plotline the “gripping drama Julian Cole saw? Did you stay with it? Was Not Guilty the correct verdict ? Leave your verdict below