Blissful country life seared by abuse

British radio show The Archers, an institution, divides fans with new storyline of domestic violence

LONDON • In the village of Ambridge on the British radio show The Archers, nothing much changes and listeners like it that way.

They find comfort in the pace and traditions of country life and in the villagers' peccadilloes intertwined with conversations about badger culls, jam making, the campaign to save a local shop or a cow giving birth to triplets.

Class differences, when they surface, are usually respected.

Yes, over the nearly seven decades that the BBC has broadcast the programme, plots have included at least one same-sex marriage, the wedding of a Hindu woman to a vicar who rides a motorcycle and a child's birth out of wedlock.

And yes, some characters have turned out to be snobs, bigots, adulterers and even criminals. But the show's old tagline - "an everyday story of country folk" - still seems appropriate.

Yet a new trial episode has much of Britain buzzing and has divided listeners. The defendant, Helen Titchener, is charged with trying to kill her husband, Rob, after years of abuse.

The Archers is a national institution: Almost five million Britons tune in every week to listen to the daily 121/2-minute episodes.

"It's very British, in that not very much happens," said Clive Aslet, a former editor of Country Life, a 120- year-old magazine about luxurious lifestyles in the British countryside. "That's one of its essential charms."

So it was something of a shock when the producers introduced a storyline about domestic abuse, which they say is the most disturbing plot twist since matriarch Grace Archer died while trying to rescue her horses from a stable fire. That was in 1955.

Some applaud the programme's willingness to take on real-life issues, while others yearn for the predictable safety and colourful familiarity that have made The Archers so enduring.

Helen, a fragile character whom the audience has known since childhood, and Rob live in the idyllic Blossom Hill Cottage. But it is far from blissful. Rob's verbal and occasionally physical assaults pushed Helen to the edge of a breakdown.

The drama reached a climax in April when she finally snapped and stabbed him. That pushed the weekly audience well over five million, including digital downloads.

Five months later, as if following the timetable of an actual case, listeners will hear her appear before a judge, charged with attempted murder. The villagers remain split over what, or whom, to believe, with many characters having proclaimed Rob a hero for saving three people during a flood in 2014.

"It's maddening," said Mr Peter York, a social commentator. "Every decent Englishman feels, how can this b****** be tolerated? Let's get some incriminating evidence on him. We're all rooting for her. But it does make one want to throw things at the radio."

Some listeners have accused Sean O'Connor, the show's departing editor, of sensationalism. The theme, they say, is inappropriate for a programme that was originally intended to encourage farmers to increase productivity amid the food shortages and rationing in the years after World War II.

In The Telegraph, Timothy Watson, who plays Rob, praised the programme for undertaking a difficult issue, but acknowledged: "I know it has been difficult listening and there is a proportion of our listeners who have struggled with that."

The programme has received considerable acclaim for its realistic portrayal of domestic abuse, which often begins innocuously.

In The Archers, it started in February 2014 when Rob refused to eat a special meal that Helen had made for him.

"We've been taken down a dark path," said professor of cultural studies Lyn Thomas at the University of Sussex, who is contributing to a book about the show. "It has brought to public consciousness an issue that is hidden and where it's very difficult to get convictions."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Blissful country life seared by abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe