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The Archers' take on domestic abuse was truly powerful

By Eamonn McCann

Published 06/04/2016

Helen Titchener, played by Louiza Patikas, and Rob Titchener, played by Timothy Watson, from BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers (BBC/PA)
Helen Titchener, played by Louiza Patikas, and Rob Titchener, played by Timothy Watson, from BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers (BBC/PA)

The first thought in the minds of millions when Helen plunged the knife into Rob on Sunday will have been that no jury would convict. Well, that might have been the second thought after: "Good on you, girl!"

From our kitchen came the rattle of plates (it was my night off) and a savage cry: "Make sure he's dead!" Good advice, as it turned out. He wasn't quite.

The Rob-Helen saga on The Archers has been as compelling a story as anything on radio or television in ages. Perfectly pitched and developed over months of tightening tension and rising horror, this was a dark, psychological portrayal of spousal abuse as gripping and disturbing as a Hitchcock thriller.

Ever listened to a programme while peering through your fingers at the radio?

Huge numbers of Archers regulars reported that they had frequently to turn the programme off, aghast at Rob's precisely calculated cruelty and Helen's seemingly inexorable descent into timidity and defeat.

It took her friend Kirsty too long to suss what was happening behind closed doors. She did come good in the end, a haven for Helen in the way a friend should be - the one on the phone at the blood-spattered climax.

Even Helen's mum Pat had failed to see the truth - which exasperated listeners reasonably believed must have been as obvious as the nose on her face - convinced, instead, by Rob's faux concern.

For a while there it seemed that only little Harry (5) was sensing something terribly wrong. He expressed his angst by giving his classmate Xanthe a totally-out-of-character shove.

One recent episode was followed by three or four seconds of dead air before the continuity announcer broke in: "I'm thinking of going round there myself and sort that fellow out."

Social media sites are full of complaints that the story has been misplaced in Ambridge. Jerusalem, jam and the Grundys' Christmas turkeys were more the village's style. Storylines like this should be left to EastEnders.

But I'd estimate that, for every listener who shuddered away, there were two or three others grimly nodding agreement. "That could be Jennifer." "That's what happened to Nicola." "That could be me."

The most relevant aspect of the story was not that it amounted to overblown soap-style melodrama, but precisely that it told the mundane truth of tens of thousands of relationships that, on the surface, appear serene.

We will discover, now that Helen presumably has no reason to fear him, the level of abuse she suffered and whether he drugged and raped her. We'll discover, too, whether the law will punish Helen for an act of self-defence.

Abusers don't come across as monsters but as ordinary men - or, in roughly eight per cent of cases, ordinary women.

Abused women don't strike friends or family as battered victims, but, perhaps, as needlessly anxious - "bad with her nerves".

Helen was a sparky, confident woman not long ago. She'd run her own business, had a string of affairs and recovered remarkably well from one of her lovers putting the muzzle of a shotgun into his mouth and blowing the back of his head off. Could a tough cookie like that really have been reduced to a whimpering wretch? Absolutely.

The PSNI recorded 28,287 domestic incidents in 2014-15. The figure for cases of abuse was 13,426, including six murders. There were many more cases of abuse than of drugs offences or burglaries. Sexual offences in the North numbered 2,734, including 737 rapes. Women's Aid will tell you that, in most cases, neighbours and friends had no idea.

The writers and production team worked closely with Women's Aid and Refuge, which partners Women's Aid in providing safe houses, in researching and producing the programme.

The Department of Justice is currently conducting a consultation on proposals for a new law on abuse. The draft of the proposals - Stopping Domestic Violence and Abuse Strategy - includes an updated definition of abuse, including "coercive and controlling behaviour" in an intimate relationship.

The proposals also include a measure to help women (or men) find out if their partner has a history of abuse. In The Archers story it was only last weekend, on the day before she stuck the knife in him, that Helen got to talk to Rob's ex Jess and realised he had been a monster from the outset.

The consultation ends on April 29. I imagine there will be significantly higher level of response as a result of The Archers, which justifies everything about the programme.

Write to: Community Safety Division, Room A4.24, Castle Buildings, Stormont Estate, Belfast, BT4 3SG, or telephone 028 9052 3772

Belfast Telegraph

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