The Archers stabbing: making Helen the perpetrator is cheap and wrong

Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2016

Fiction always involves a negotiation between keeping the audience interested and what would happen in real life. If the balance goes wrong, the result is not just melodrama but an angry response from readers – or listeners, in the case of last night’s episode of The Archers on Radio 4. It was the culmination of a storyline about domestic abuse which has been running for months, ending with a cliff-hanger about whether Helen Titchener has really killed her horrible husband, Rob.

We will find out this evening whether he is dead or seriously injured. Either way, it is Helen who is now in serious trouble, with almost unthinkable consequences for her young son Henry and her unborn child. An arrest seems inevitable, and listeners know that Rob has already planted the idea that Helen is frighteningly unstable in the minds of her friends and relatives.

That aspect of the storyline has been both chilling and convincing, drawn out in a way that reflects the carefully-planned isolation of a victim by a manipulative man. But last night’s episode detached itself from real life, where Helen would have been at much greater risk of being seriously injured or killed than her abusive husband. The Office for National Statistics says that women are far more likely to be killed by current or former partners than men, and the figures support that conclusion. Almost half of female homicide victims fall into this category, compared with only seven per cent of male victims.

What is so disappointing about this decision is that the storyline had until then realistically demonstrated the mechanics of ‘coercive control’, a form of domestic abuse which became a criminal offence last year. To the outside world, Rob seemed like a caring if over-protective husband, but at home he changed moods so rapidly that Helen lived in fear of his outbursts. One of the few people to see through him was her best friend, Kirsty, who managed to persuade Helen to speak to a domestic abuse helpline and, crucially, Rob’s first wife, Jess.

That conversation provided Helen with confirmation that Rob had subjected another woman to an identical form of control. But it also did something else, forcing her to recognise that she was a victim of marital rape, a criminal assault women often find hard to name, even to themselves. Helen’s discovery that Rob had done the same thing to Jess was a turning-point, finally making her acknowledge the physical and mental danger she was in.

Having got to that point, it defies belief that Helen would voluntarily spend a final evening with her abuser, even making him a meal as a prelude to announcing her decision to leave. It’s plausible that a victim might not be aware of statistics showing she is at greatest risk of death or injury when she tries to escape, but the storyline had just revealed to Helen that she was dealing with a serial abuser and rapist.

Everything about the episode seemed wrong. Why didn’t Helen just pack her and Henry’s bags and leave with Kirsty, who had come to check on her in Rob’s absence? Leaving the bags half-packed upstairs, where he was likely to find them, felt like a device to ratchet up tension. Rob’s rant about never letting Helen go was pitch-perfect but what really jarred was the moment when he offered her a knife and told her to kill herself. Children are incredibly important to manipulative men and it’s highly unlikely that Rob would put his unborn baby – or himself – at risk of physical harm. The whole thing felt artificial, a clunky device to put a weapon in the hand of someone who would never have thought of picking it up on her own.

A much more realistic scenario would have been Helen leaving while Rob was at work and struggling to explain why she’d left an apparently loving husband. That would have been pretty difficult, given the amount of time he has spent grooming her friends and family, and it would have reflected one of the most distressing experiences victims go through. Not being believed is a nightmare, especially when someone has already suffered months of self-doubt, and that storyline would have helped real-life victims.

Instead, Helen has been transformed from a victim into a perpetrator. There have been a small number of cases where a woman has killed a violent partner, after years of abuse, but they are exceptional enough to become something of a cause celebre. We will find out tonight whether Helen is going to face a murder charge, something which would be unprecedented in the history of Ambridge. But it already feels like a missed opportunity, a swerve into melodrama when the series could have shown us the slow, delicate process of a woman freeing herself and trying to repair a badly damaged psyche.

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