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Moment that mattered: Helen Titchener is found not guilty

The trial of Helen Titchener as imagined by court artist Priscilla Coleman

The trial of Helen Titchener as imagined by court artist Priscilla Coleman

On the night that Helen was found not guilty of the attempted murder of her husband, Rob, in The Archers, I was sitting in my car outside the BBC studios in Birmingham listening to the programme on the radio. The 60-minute special episode was the culmination of a storyline in which Rob had subjected Helen to long-term psychological abuse that had ended in her stabbing him. I had written it but hadn’t heard the final edit and I wanted to experience it like the other five million listeners who tuned in.

The next couple of weeks were surreal. There were front-page headlines about the verdict the following day and a huge surge in people calling the Refuge and Women’s Aid helplines. A Just Giving page which had been set up by one listener with the strapline ‘We’re raising money for Refuge because for every fictional Helen, there are real ones’, smashed through its target of £150,000.

Most importantly, though, the storyline got millions of people talking about coercive control, or “gaslighting” as it is known, in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own sanity, and which, thankfully, became a criminal offence at the end of 2015.

This story was uniquely suited to a long-running radio show and was the culmination of almost three years’ work. Helen’s character [played by Louiza Patikas, pictured overleaf, since 2000] has been in the show since she was born, and has suffered a lot of trauma. Then this apparently charming man, Rob Titchener, strides into her life. We didn’t originally intend for him to be the monster he became. He was always going to be a conservative, old-school, family-values kind of guy who would appeal to Helen because he was someone to whom she could hand over control and who would finally make her feel loved.

Then Sean O’Connor joined as editor in 2013 and in one of our first conversations he said he thought we could take it further. He’d heard something in Rob’s voice that was slightly sinister, so we developed the plan of him mounting a campaign of psychological abuse.

It began with his judgements on what Helen wore, how she did her hair, even her cooking. And then he alienated her from her family, put a stop to her driving while she was pregnant, stopped her going to work… all of which he said was for her benefit. Then you get the more serious episodes in which he tried to turn her son against her and it is implied that he raped her.

The writers always knew how this was going to end. Helen would stab Rob, be arrested and tried for attempted murder before being found not guilty. And the reason we took that decision was to allow us to move the story on to investigating how victims, and especially women with young children, are treated in the justice system.

We knew nothing about the new coercive control laws when we made this plan. I don’t know if ‘fortuitous’ is the right word, but this legislation helped connect our storyline to wider issues in the real world, and there were several other key factors that also helped. Firstly, it was psychological abuse, which hasn’t been tackled in the way that physical abuse has been covered in dramas. I’ve had so many letters and emails saying the same thing: hearing the story has allowed victims to voice what has happened to them. Or even that they didn’t realise they were in an abusive relationship and the story has brought home a painful truth.

I’ve also heard stories of men who have recognised their own abusive behaviour and have sought help. This is perhaps even more significant than helping the victims, because you’re getting to the root cause, and it’s why we put Rob’s parents into the show. We didn’t want to excuse his actions, but clearly his father is a horrible, bullying man and this element helped raise all sorts of issues about masculine identity and how we tackle the source of these problems.

It was significant, too, that The Archers is broadly speaking a middle-class show. We were making the point that coercive control is a drip, drip, drip form of intimidation that leaves you doubting yourself and your sanity – and it can happen to anyone regardless of background, class or status. As well as helping survivors, I hoped this story would show people in positions of power who listen to the show – including barristers, judges and politicians – what this kind of abuse entails.

“Although listeners understood that Helen’s story was fictional, they realised that it’s something that happens to lots of real people too”

To make sure we were telling an authentic story, we had a lot of contact with the Refuge and Women’s Aid charities. I heard stories that we couldn’t put in the show because no one would believe them. For example, there was a man who cut out all of the labels from his partner’s clothes and replaced them with larger-size labels so that he could say she was getting fat. By that point the gaslighting had reached such a level that she didn’t question it. Another guy would go round to his ex-partner’s house at night and lift up the windscreen wipers on her car, just so in the morning she’d know he’d been around.

It really struck me from this latter example how little protection there is after you get away from an abusive partner. And while there is support available, funding for these types of charities has been severely cut due to austerity measures. There’s a huge shortage of these services at a time when demand is going up and up, partly due to so many calls in the wake of this story.

Why did it resonate so much? I think The Archers’ format of 12-and-a-half minutes, six days a week, is so intimate. It’s all about the voices and the way they get in your head, which made this story horrific in a way that watching it on TV wouldn’t have done. I know it was a hard listen for a lot of people, which might be why you had so many of them jumping online every night to discuss what they’d heard. Although listeners understood that Helen and Rob’s story was fictional, they realised that it’s something that happens to lots and lots of real people too.”

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