Why Archers fans are raising funds to save Helen

The radio soap’s domestic abuse storyline is obsessing Middle England

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

Never before has a radio soap crossed so far over from fiction and into the real world. Never before has it become imperative to listen to each and every episode of The Archers (just after 7 p.m. on Radio 4, every day except Saturday) as if by being there, listening in on the ether, we can in some way stand alongside Helen Titchener and defend her from her poisonous husband Rob as he tries to entangle her further in his stifling, controlling web. Some listeners have been so appalled by the current storyline, horrified by the insidious way Rob is trying to take control of his wife, that almost £60,000 has so far been raised in a real live charity appeal on the internet. Just look for ‘The Helen Titchener Rescue Fund’ on JustGiving.

Unfortunately no such relief will actually reach Helen; the charity Refuge, for victims of domestic abuse, to which the money will go, has not made it into fictional Borsetshire. We can only sit by and listen as Rob slowly squashes the spirit out of Helen, wondering at her failure to recognise what is happening, and desperate to reach into the radio and save her.

But why do we care so much? Why go to the length of setting up a rescue fund? After all, Helen does not actually exist, nor Rob. No one will really get hurt as this storyline unfolds. She’s the mere victim of capricious scriptwriters in search of a hook that will keep listeners tuned in day after day to the Radio 4 soap. The only man guilty of torturing Helen is Sean O’Connor, the soap’s editor, who has form on using domestic violence as an audience draw: his previous work experience was on EastEnders. Yet such is Helen’s plight that listeners are taking to extreme measures in her defence. Fans of the soap are out in force on Twitter and other social media every evening, lambasting Rob as a scoundrel and calling for an end to Helen’s protracted torture. (It has become impossible for Timothy Watson, the actor playing Rob, to appear at Archers events, so vitriolic is the abuse thrown at him by disturbed listeners.)

Helen, for those of you not addicted to The Archers, is the 36-year-old daughter of Pat and Tony Archer, organic farmers in Ambridge. She had a troubled past, suffered from anorexia, had a boyfriend who committed suicide, decided to have a baby by IVF while still single, then fell victim to the dastardly charms of cattleman Rob Titchener. He whisked her off her feet with his gentlemanly ways before she discovered that he was already married, which he just brushed aside, declaring his estranged wife to be ‘a witch’.

As soon as the divorce came through, he rushed Helen away to be wed before she had the chance to tell anyone. Then, in a controversial episode, he more or less forced himself upon her after getting her squiffy on champagne, so that she would fall pregnant with ‘his’ child. He is now so overprotective of her that she has stopped work, stopped driving, stopped seeing anyone except him and her son Henry.

Weirdly, Helen’s mother Pat, a dyed-in-the-wool, Greenham Common-supporting feminist from the 1970s, has not seen through him, and the net is closing in on Helen. Recent episodes have given us Rob talking to little Henry and trying to turn him into an agent against his mother, an undercurrent so sinister it’s hard not to wince, physically repelled by what’s being said and done on air.

Helen, it should be said, is no pushover as a character, in spite of her emotional vulnerability. She has had her own career (making prizewinning cheeses), and has plenty of friends and family to provide emotional support. She had no need of a husband to provide for her financially, or for Henry, until Rob came along. Is this what provoked him? Knowing that Helen had less need of him than he of her?

Lately he’s called in his mother for back-up in his campaign of intimidation, inviting her to stay, ostensibly to help Helen look after Henry over half-term, in reality to keep an eye on her. Helen has so far not stood up against any of this. But for how much longer? Meanwhile listeners to The Archers are reeling. The Radio 4 soap appears to have blundered into a minefield, and is blowing to smithereens our comfortable notions about marriage in Middle England. The storyline has been so well-written that the situation is utterly believable. We’re left wondering how many women are there out in the shires living day by day with the kind of insidious, controlling, jealous possessiveness exhibited by Rob.

It’s discomfiting because some of the details, some of the lines, remind us of behaviour we’ve observed, husbands who love to be in charge and hate their wives to have opinions and lives of their own. But is there more of this going on now than 45 years ago, when Refuge was set up? Or is the impact of this particular storyline telling us more about the enduring appeal and relevance of long-form radio drama? Soaps like The Archers allow stories to unfold slowly, giving them depth and conviction. On radio, too, the daily, incremental doses of Rob’s venom work on us with surprising force.

Some relief to those of us who are finding Helen’s plight too disturbing might be forthcoming: O’Connor has just announced he is leaving the radio soap and returning to EastEnders. Too late for Helen’s marriage, which surely must end in some kind of catastrophe (I hope and pray it befalls Rob, not her). Meanwhile, each night at just after seven the theme-tune echoes through the house, Rob’s horrid clipped voice penetrates the room, insinuating thoughts, suggesting ideas, awakening long-buried fears.

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Show comments
  • polidorisghost

    “She has had her own career (making prizewinning cheeses)”
    The Archers, being just an Islington fantasy, is bound to insist that the cheeses are “prizewinning”.

    • William Brown

      …and a career!

      • polidorisghost

        But of course, and a career that is beneficial to society – yeah.

  • jeb

    “the charity Refuge, for victims of domestic abuse, to which the money will go, has not made it into fictional Borsetshire.” Of course it has. Refuge is there for anyone in England who wants to ask for their support. Felpersham will have a Domestic Abuse office, and the helpline for Refuge is available to all who want to call them day and night. 0808 2000 247

  • It is barely possible to listen to The Archers any more. I started listening to it in the 1950s and rarely missed an episode of decades. Now, it is so full of modern north London concerns and attitudes that it is barely recognisable. Long gone are the rural tales of the rascally Grundy family, poaching and selling illegal cider. Now it is packed full of homosexuals to such a density as to be more like a San Fransisco bath house in the 1970s – more a case of I’m the only straight in the village’, than the other way around. All the women are feminist ideal, capable, entrepreneurial survivors, and the men are either cads, roues or feeble wretches. It’s a PC dream world of a most hideous sort – utterly unrealistic since in my experience, rural communities are in general far more reactionary than the most traditional cities. When the squire’s daughter Kate, the last (or almost) in a long line of anglo-Saxon progeny turned up with a coal black baby, sired by a South African boyfriend, Lucas, nobody raised an eyebrow. Only rascally Eddie Grundy gave the slightest clue that he was a bit surprised. The vicar is married to a Hindu and has a huge statue of Ganesh in his hallway and everybody is totally right on. What a load of old dross. I blame Vanessa Whitburn for most of the horrible deterioration, but her successors have done no better. Regarding the latest plot device of the destruction of Helen by the Titchners, the idea that her family would not have noticed and that her mother Pat in particular would not have hit Rob over the head with a large tractor spanner by now is utterly ridiculous.

    • Woman of Brockley

      What nonsense.

      • What in particular among about twenty points do you disagree with?

        • Duke_Bouvier

          We can start with the Grundy’s new cows and dodgy carpentry.

          • This remark is so short it is impossible to do other than guess at what you mean by it.

    • Shorne

      You do take a long time to say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary don’t you.

      • Goldfish style powers of concentration, have you? Attention deficit disorder? I kept it short for you so you didn’t get diverted by intrusive thoughts.

        • Shorne

          That’s better, why didn’t you keep your original post as short as this instead of dusting off so many tired old reactionary cliches?

          • Shame I’m not as ‘modern’ and tuned in as you are Shorne….

            The drama has lost its way. I gave a bunch of examples. If you don’t have time to read a detailed post, why bother. It isn’t compulsory. Then you bothered too engage in a debate about it?

    • Gwyn PJ

      Love ‘San Francisco bath house – alma mater! Great stuff.

    • jeremy Morfey

      I actually live in an Archers village in rural Worcestershire, and the setting in real life is as close as you can get to Ambridge. There are several circles of activity, which don’t often meet. I am often astonished how many folk I don’t know turn up to a big event such as the village fete or Remembrance, each with their own set of friends. Most of my village activity is centred around the community choir, which is a secular offshoot of the local church, trying very hard to be secular, but ending up singing the Messiah. Once we did a concert of folk songs, leaving the problem how to be convincing rustic yokels. So we all had to tie string round our trousers, forgetting that we were rustic yokels and all we needed to do was to be ourselves. I once had to teach them to morris dance. The sort of aimless shuffling was probably far truer to the tradition than the perfectly executed choreography performances from proud and accomplished real morris dancers.

      We have our fair share of BBC political correctness creeping in. At the turn of the millennium, the village parson’s wife was a Tamil from Sri Lanka, who used to make delicious curries for church events and walked their golden labrador around the village every day. As a little girl, she read Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie and her lifetime dream was to live in a 1950s-style English village married to the vicar. So she did.

      The choirmistress, a formidable lady capable of taking rough and tuneless village voices and producing something out of the hat from nowhere, once pointed out a house where the local accountant married a blacksmith. Then the blacksmith had gender reassignment and they now live as a married lesbian couple. I don’t think even the Archers have worked that one in yet, but I am sure they will.

    • Mary Ann

      They ran out of story lines about twenty years ago.

  • Tony Harmsworth

    I have followed the Archers on Radio 4 since the mid 1980s, the last twenty years or so through the weekly podcast. It is the only ‘soap’ I have followed since I gave up on Coronation Street when it started increasing the number of episodes each week many, many years ago. Soaps are supposed to be enjoyable entertainment, combining drama with a fun insight into the lives of people you don’t really know. http://www.loch-ness.com/lochnesstony/2016/02/25/the-archers-enough-is-enough/ I hope my link will be allowed through the thought police as it is very relevant.

  • Teacher

    I gave up taking any notice when the lovely Nigel was made to fall from the roof. Bringing him back would be more plausible than some of the PC storylines now.

  • Paul Trueman

    Hello lovely Speccie readers. As an occasional reader myself who still misses Simon Hoggart’s column, I’m delighted to see the rescue fund I started being covered. You can find out all about it here: https://www.justgiving.com/helentitchener/

  • Gwyn PJ

    Lovely article, thank-you. Readers might like to know that I am starting a fund to support poor gullible Archers fans who are stupid enough to give away good money to help a non-existent person: details on https://www.iamanidiotpleezehelp.com. Do log in and give generously.

    • Samantha Deane

      As one of the ‘gullible Archers fans who are stupid enough to give away good money’, you might like to consider that almost £60,000 has been raised for Refuge, which will enable them to run their vital services for almost 3 years. Do log in to justgiving.com/helentitchener and give generously, won’t you?

      • Gwyn PJ

        Touche Samantha (I might say, if I could find the acute accent!). But I have given, and shall continue to give, to Refuge. I’m sure you know I’m not scoffing at that charity, but at a weird tendency for folk to delude themselves into believing that soap characters are real people. The bit in the article about the actor who plays Rob, and the impossibility of his making live appearances, is in its way just as disturbing as the story-line in the soap itself.

        • Samantha Deane

          I agree with you entirely, but it seems it’s been ever thus – people knitting things for Coronation Street babies etc. Let’s be generous and say it’s due to the quality of the writing and the acting… I think what makes this particular storyline so disturbing (and, personally, I’ve had to stop listening) is that, on radio, your mind fills in the blanks in a way that doesn’t seem to happen quite so much on TV. Still doesn’t excuse the abuse that Tim Watson’s had, though.

          • Mary Ann

            I expect it on Coronation street, but Radio 4.

        • Mary Ann


          You can copy and paste letters with accents from here.

    • Paul Trueman

      I recommend 30 seconds reading the justgiving page first Gwyn. My tongue is very firmly in my cheek about it actually being for Helen, but the need for Refuge is all too real, sadly. Come and join us and do something ‘stupid’ 🙂

      • Gwyn PJ

        Paul, good luck with the fund – and, as I replied to Samantha Deane (below) who commented in similar fashion, I support Refuge and shall continue to do so. But you’ve gort to admit there are a lot of nutcases around……….!

    • Mary Ann

      Nice try.

  • njt55

    How can people possibly believe that the people in the Archers are real? It’s not as if it’s true, unlike the danger posed to the world by Grant Ward in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD..

  • The Patriarchy

    ‘Orrible ‘Elen, the miserable whining self-righteous cheese preoccupied bore whose utter insensitivity and self-absorbed selfishness drove Greg the grim gamekeeper to an untimely death some years ago, is now according to the idiot script writers, deserving of our pity. Having previously entered into an squalid arrangement with a turkey baster in order to impregnate herself (Peggy Wooley still won’t go in her kitchen for fear of catching sight of the dread object) and produce a vanity fatherless child, our aging and increasingly desperate spinster threw herself one last time at another woman’s husband.

    And she got her wish. The life of domestic subjection, with only cleaning behind the fridge and joyfully obeying her husband’s lawful precepts to look forward to, seems an almost unduly generous outcome for a such an unsympathetic and immoral character. Certainly it is altogether better that we hear no more of her twisted, bitter feminism, and that she has come to rejoice in her proper role of wife, mother, and handmaid, It’s a bit surprising that the fool BBC managed to get this one right, but stopped clocks and all that..There the storyline should rest. However if there is any editorial interference in this entirely satisfactory outcome, I shall definitely be contributing to Rob’s defence fund.

    Now if only Rooth and Kate could be abducted to become Jihadi brides, Borsetshire society might actually be on the road to recovery.

  • plainsdrifter

    “It has become impossible for Timothy Watson, the actor playing Rob, to appear at Archers events, so vitriolic is the abuse thrown at him by disturbed listeners.”

    British society is becoming more neurotic, sentimental and foolish with each passing year. When presumably a goodish proportion of these ‘hard working’ people has the vote, it really is quite scary.

  • TrippingDwarves

    Gave up on the Archers when they pushed poor old Nigel off the roof. Ridiculous story and poor handling. Don’t miss it now, though I do miss what it was.

  • mike otter

    sad loss of a once good story of everyday folk – farming or otherwise – now they often get their agricultural facts wrong and introduce terms that farmers have not used for generations – i think the beeb want to kill it off but cannot be seen doing so. I reckon O’Connor has issues.

  • Mary Ann

    You would think that Radio 4 listeners would be bright enough to separate soaps from real life.

    • alecto2

      They are. You’ve missed the point. The slogan for the fund-raising is ‘For every fictional Helen, there’s a real one’.