LONDON — The trial of Helen Titchener, who stabbed her husband Rob after months of emotional and physical abuse, has gripped Britain, sparked a national debate about domestic violence and brought a flood of donations to women’s shelters.
That’s quite an achievement, since Helen and Rob are characters in a 65-year-old rural radio drama whose plotlines often center on crops, cattle and the weather.
Millions of listeners to “The Archers” on BBC radio have been horrified and transfixed by the relationship, which culminated this week in Helen’s trial for attempted murder. On Sunday, a fictional jury will decide whether she is guilty, or acted in self-defense.
It’s the most sensational story line in decades for the show, which follows the landowning Archer clan and their neighbors in the fictional English village of Ambridge. The gently paced soap opera is a British institution, synonymous with a cozy world of sowing and harvesting, summer fetes on the green and Christmas pageants in the village hall.
Its usual tone of gentle domesticity heightened listeners’ shock as the Helen-Rob story unfolded, slowly and with chilling realism. The relationship between organic cheesemaker Helen Archer and farm manager Rob Titchener began in 2013, leading to marriage and a baby.
Like Helen, listeners slowly discovered Rob’s bullying side, as he gradually isolated her from friends and family and began to control her behavior.
The plot was inspired by a new British law against “coercive or controlling behavior” in relationships. Writers consulted lawyers, charities and abuse survivors to get the details right.
Listener Paul Trueman was so moved he set up a fundraising page — the Helen Titchener (nee Archer) Rescue Fund — hoping to raise 1,000 pounds ($1,320). So far, “Archers” listeners have donated almost 150,000 pounds ($200,000) for domestic violence charity Refuge.
“I’d been gripped by the story but if I’m honest I’d seen it very much as another plotline, a piece of entertainment,” said Trueman. “And it slowly dawned on me that this was a real thing, that they’d really captured a form of domestic abuse that I didn’t really appreciate.
“The idea of mental abuse and coercive control, the idea that the bruises aren’t always visible, really sunk in. They have made this topic part of the national conversation.”
Launched in 1951, in part to help educate farmers about modern agricultural methods, “The Archers” has always tried to remain rooted in reality. Program editor Sean O’Connor has said it is not only a drama but “a piece of ongoing social history.”
Helen and Rob’s domestic trauma played out amid stories of daily village life: a new herd for dairy farmers David and Ruth Archer; teenage characters’ high school exams; the disappearance and return of Lynda Snell’s beloved dog Scruff.
Roifield Brown, co-host of “The Archers” podcast Dum Tee Dum (the name comes from the show’s rustic theme tune), said listening is “like having an ear on real people.”
“It feels in a way small, but very believable,” he said.
Some 5 million people listen to the serial, broadcast in six 12 1/2-minute episodes a week, with a 75-minute catch-up edition on Sunday mornings.
Not all have been happy with the domestic abuse story. Some complained it was sensationalistic, while others found it unbearably painful.
The show’s many fans on social media have adopted the #savehelen hashtag, and are fervently hoping for an acquittal. Brown said “there will be a Twitter meltdown” if Helen is convicted — though he doesn’t expect listeners to give up on the show.
“‘Archers’ listeners are a ridiculously loyal bunch,” he said.
Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless