ONE or two odd people moaned on Twitter that they were fed up of the flood of tweets about The Archers. “It’s just a story, for goodness sake: get a life,” or words to that effect. But the relationship between fact and fiction is more complex and more interesting than that.
Much of the nation was gripped by the culmination last week of the Radio 4 saga of how Helen Archer, as was, was reduced to a quivering shell by the manipulative and controlling behaviour of her odious husband Rob Titchener. Over the past three years, his conduct ratcheted insidiously upwards, as he moved from telling his wife what to wear and cook, to mind-games to make her give up driving and slowly cut her off from her family and friends. When he finally gave her a knife, and told her to kill herself, she stabbed him with it.
There was widespread rejoicing in Middle England when Helen was found not guilty of attempted murder on the grounds of self-defence. Newspapers, TV, and radio covered it alongside real events. Tweets peaked all week. One women’s-refuge campaigner called it “one of the biggest cultural moments of 2016”.
This was not entirely hyperbole. The country coalesced around its radio sets in a way I cannot remember since the days when there were so few TV and radio channels that significant broadcasts constituted moments in the national consciousness.
It was a testimony to the power of drama. Coercive control, as a particular form of domestic abuse, this year became a crime punishable by five years in prison. Few press reports about that, though, created much emotional engagement.
The Archers’ bite did not come from the care that the scriptwriters took in consulting lawyers, charities, and abuse survivors to get the details right. Rather, it grew from the empathy that good drama can foster, as it puts us in the shoes, and inside the heads, of characters whose stories in the newspaper make most readers turn the page to find something less grim to read. In drama, however, the painstakingly constructed three-year plotline built a slow and credible picture of the insidious, subtle, and sophisticated nature of some forms of domestic abuse — and in characters we came to care about.
All this has an impact on the real world. Listeners have so far donated more than £160,000 to a charity supporting women and children fleeing domestic violence. It has prompted the Prime Minister to say that she is “working on” exempting women’s refuges from changes in housing benefits, which campaigners say threaten to shut two-thirds of such sanctuaries.
And yet the real impact has gone beyond politics. There is now a wider realisation that domestic abuse extends beyond physical violence and into the sinister subtlety embodied in the creepy but clever Rob Titchener. By increasing communal understanding of that — in everyone from the friends and family of victims to social workers, police, lawyers, jurors, and judges — the Archers team have done more than create potent drama. They have done a public service.
Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics and media at the University of Chester.