If some Americans in their late mornings or early afternoons Sunday heard cries of “Yesss…” and possibly the sound of tears too, they may have been in near proximity to a fan of the BBC Radio 4 serial The Archers.
After suffering years of torment and, it emerged, rape at the hands of her abusive husband, Rob, Helen Titchener was acquitted of his attempted murder and wounding with intent (although he dearly deserved both and more) in a dramatic court trial, after five months in jail separated from her young son Henry, who is still in Rob’s insidious clutches.
If the jury’s verdict seemed like a happy climax, think again: The last moments of the episode saw Helen come face-to-face with her evil husband, who told her she would never be free of him.
He not only has present full-time guardianship Henry, but they also share a son, Jack, whom Rob insists on calling Gideon. His deviousness—and real and present danger—knows no bounds: Insanely, Rob told Helen she had lied in court when he is the liar, and then, the warped wretch, how much he still loved to look at her. Mind games are a full-time occupation for Rob Titchener.
The Helen storyline has had an immense public impact in the U.K., with one listener setting up a fund in aid of the real-life charity Refuge, which has so far raised nearly $212,000. Calls to domestic violence helplines have increased. The crime of “coercive control”, which Rob practiced so ruthlessly on Helen, is now enshrined in British law.
#FreeHelen became a hashtag, and people were shown drinking from mugs of tea “in solidaritea” with Helen. Celebratory tuna pasta bakes—Rob’s most hated dish—were being prepared for the verdict.
Sunday’s episode was the Archers swansong of Sean O’Connor, the program’s editor, who is now series producer of the BBC’s TV soap opera EastEnders. Some listeners criticized him for bringing that hard-edged sensationalism to The Archers. But this was unfair: The power of Helen’s abuse storyline was in its intricate, tortuous pacing.
As I have written before, the long-running radio serial—which has been running since 1951 and currently has 18,000+ episodes to its name—is set in the village of Ambridge, somewhere in the Midlands.
Its reputation for many years was bucolic and banal: farming, flower shows, cake-making, with—as modern times rolled in—affairs, love children, and, with Rob and Helen, a truly shocking storyline that outdid anything on television in its portrayal of unfolding domestic violence.
The medium of radio—where you make up the images in your head, and where the voices go straight into your ears, firing every individual listener’s horrified imagination—made it all the more powerful.
The storyline of Helen and Rob (brilliantly played by Louiza Patikas and Timothy Watson) has been hellish to listen to for us fans, because, unlike on television, this was no short, dramatic arc, but a slow burn over years. We know Helen. It always felt as if she had never gotten over the suicide of her partner, Greg. She is withdrawn, thorny, though after she conceived her son Henry via sperm donor, some kind of happiness seemed due her.
Rob was the tall, dark, handsome stranger who seemed to promise that happiness, except he turned out to be anything but. His coercive control over Helen, his relentless gas-lighting of her—which would lead to her being robbed of her identity, her friends, and family, with everyone remaining unaware—began with comments over her clothes and hair.
Rob’s campaign of terror escalated as Helen’s pregnancy with his child progressed. Soon his equally despicable mother, Ursula, moved in to further torture and destabilize Helen. Rob destroyed Helen’s friendship with her friend Ian, by implicating her in the revelation that Ian’s husband, Adam, had cheated on him.
Finally, Helen’s good friend Kirsty returned to the village (after having her heart broken by Helen’s brother Tom on their wedding day!) and noticed that something was wrong with Helen, but Helen was so worn down and psychologically damaged by Rob’s scheming and mind games that she tried to turn her away.
Finally, thanks to Rob’s ex-wife, Jess, Helen realized the destructive nature of her marriage and resolved to escape it. That night, Rob violently tried to stop her, threatening little Henry in the process, picking up a kitchen knife, and goading her to commit suicide. She stabbed him instead. We cheered. And after all he’d done, it was Helen who was arrested.
Rob’s games have continued while Helen has been awaiting trial in jail, with her parents over their one measly day a week to see Henry, trying to intimidate Jess into not giving evidence, and menacing other locals, including poor Ian—who finally and gratifyingly told him that, despite his best efforts to wreck his and Helen’s friendship, he couldn’t wait to be a character witness for her in court. (In court, Rob’s lawyer tried to smear Ian’s homosexuality.)
The trial itself has been, until Sunday’s verdict episode, both painful and heartening. Helen has found her voice, revealing something we had all suspected—that Rob had raped her.
We as listeners didn’t know this had become systematic marital rape. The scale of Rob’s mental torture of Helen was laid bare, but not his possible role in the flood that nearly destroyed the village last year, and his assault on a hunt saboteur (witnessed by the achingly pious Shula, who waited too long to reveal the truth about it for it to be any use to Helen).
Rob lied and lied in court, naturally. Helen’s family, having blamed themselves for not noticing what Rob was doing to their loved one, have united and mother Pat (oh Pat!) finally seems to have reclaimed the feminist cojones old-time listeners recall of her—and couldn’t quite figure out how and where she had lost them.
The trial was gripping, until Sunday’s strange episode when a number of well-known British actors—Dame Eileen Atkins, Nigel Havers, Catherine Tate, and Rakhee Thakrar—amassed as the voices of the jury for deliberations. Imagine Twelve Angry Men become A Few Angry Middle Englanders.
For some reason, The Archers felt the need to have every modern stereotype and prejudice on vivid display in their deliberations, including around Brexit. This added to the tension and cliffhanger-ishness around the verdict, as many of their prejudices seemed to spell disaster for Helen. But it also felt like a bit of needless sadism: The listener knows the truth, so simply listening to an hour of yet more anti-Helen prejudice and pro-Helen sentiment (much lesser than the former) felt unnecessary.
Sure, it gave the writers the chance to air both sides of the court case, but they had done so already, and the listeners know that only one side is the true side: There is nothing to debate. For this listener, it simply extended the Archers writers’ torture of Helen for another 50 minutes.
When the verdict was revealed, fans may have not only cried out “yes,” they may have cried a little bit when Helen was reunited with her father and mother, who held her and told her how much she was loved. Her simple denunciation of Rob scored another “yes,” until his renewed threat and malign flirtation seemed to signal a fresh outbreak of torture and hideousness coming Helen’s way. How will she cope with it, when she already has so much recovering to do anyway?
For this special episode, the program’s famous “Barwick Green” theme was played in full, with a cast list read out, just as in full-length radio drama. It was well-deserved, given the effect of the Helen storyline not just on Archers fans but also in the wider public, political, and cultural sphere.
But really, listeners will only be happy when Rob Titchener is fully and properly exposed for the despicable animal he is, and ejected from Ambridge. However, Rob may not be so easily displaced—unless he faces the force of the law for coercive control, rape, and who knows what else. This is a soap opera, though, and that will take time. “Helen and Rob” may be far from over.