Wednesday, 30 March 2016

"Archers" domestic violence plot shows unique power of soaps to communicate social problems

The dramatic domestic abuse plotline in the weekly BBC Radio 4 soap the Archers has been recently hitting the headlines. The story, involving characters Helen Archer (Louiza Patikas) and her husband Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson), has been played out over a couple of years, only now reaching a crescendo with the first physical abuse, following on months of mental torment.

Only when the abuse turned physical did the programme start giving out the domestic abuse helpline. The number of people turning to organisations that help the victims of abuse has increased by 20% as a result of the storyline. More than £70,000 has also been given via Just Giving to the charity, Refuge. So once again, the soap formula has demonstrated its power to communicate important social issues.

Not all listeners though have been pleased with the story line, accusing the producers of turning the Archers into Eastenders. Some, it seems, view the programme as more of a comfort blanket for life, somewhere to escape to rather than as a reflector of what is going on in society.

The power of soaps to communicate important public service messages was first witnessed when Eastenders developed the aids plot line around the character Mark Fowler. Again, this was done over several years, giving the story real dramatic credibility.

It was found that the storyline had far more impact in getting over the warning messages of the dangers of the disease, than any number of government health warning adverts or campaigns. Ever since the aids storyline, it seems anyone with a social message has been queuing up to get it into a soap storyline.

The swing in favour of such stories has been such that, at times, it seems the scripts are just made up of a number of public service messages all pulled together into one. Some are no doubt done better than others: aids on Eastenders, assisted dying on Coronation Street and now domestic violence in the Archers are among the successes.

The power of the soap, seems to be in how so many people can link the characters to their own life experiences. The whole fictional soap scene though ofcourse is for the most part preposterous. I would defy anyone to find a community like that depicted in Eastenders in the east end of London, a Coronation Street scenario in Manchester or indeed farmers living an Ambridge style existence in the Midlands. The soap genre by its very nature packs so much drama into what are supposed to be “ordinary lives” – most “real people” live far less exciting lives. However, it is the unique combination of the wallpaper type quality of soaps combined with gripping drama that attracts the mass audiences.

The power to communicate important social issues has been seen in the present Archers script. The actors taking the parts have worked with writers and charitable groups to make the story work so well.

The strong independent character, Helen Archer, with her emotional weaknesses, evidenced in the past by anorexia and break down after the suicide of her previous husband. Rob Titchener, a socio-path, who manages to be all things to all people from the moment he comes into the village. He effectively focuses in on Helen’s perceived weaknesses; becoming  increasingly possessive, while working away at destroying her self-confidence. The way in which he is able to isolate Helen is testimony to his power of persuasion in the wider community – taking in most people, including Helen’s mother Pat.

Some have argued this is testing the dramatic content, given that Pat was Rob's implacable enemy, when he first came into the village, as the manager of the new dairy plant. Pat has been a strong organics advocate and was a strong campaigner against the plant. However, the Pat transformation as far as Rob is concerned is believable, as it demonstrates a certain chamellion type quality in her own sometimes shallow character. She quickly switches from being an implacable enemy of Rob to becoming his biggest fan.

The two intriguing characters who have the biggest doubts about Rob are Tom (Helen’s brother) and Kirsty (her friend and jilted fiancĂ©e of Tom). Kirsty has already helped, having seen through Rob from the start. Tom has more macho objections, doubting Rob’s judgement as manager of the shop – with a downer on his sausages.

Indeed, it is a weaker element in the the plot that the Rob character has been able to so seamlessly move from dairy to shop manager, with few questioning his qualifications for the latter role.

It will be interesting to see where the domestic abuse plotline goes now. The public service information, as opposed to dramatic purpose seems to have now taken the upper hand. Helen has quickly moved from telling Kirsty she has been hit to contacting the helpline (that Kirsty contacted for her) – admitting being hit but also rape.

Dramatically, it would have been interesting to see how far the story could go – whether Rob could line up Pat as well as his warder like mother, Ursula, to get Helen sectioned or some other restraint. What now seems more likely is a plot that sees just how the new coercive behaviour law, passed at the end of last year, can be used.

It is a dramatic weakness of the soaps and testimony to their power, that it is the safe, good for law and order type outcome that is practically guaranteed come the end of any story . So if there has been a murder, with the body put under the patio, viewers/listeners know that one day the truth will come out. Though, the soap canvass has widened in this area, to take in the likes of miscarriages of justice etc. Now a miscarriage of justice can be played out over months if not years, yet I remember in the 1990s being in campaigns that dreamt of getting the case mentioned by a soap character, let alone having the whole concept of innocent people being convicted and incarcerated form a plotline on its own.

The one area I can recall where the long hand of the law has not, so to speak, triumphed has been on the issue of assisted dying. So when the Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper killed herself, many must have expected husband Roy to be hauled before the courts for assisting. Strangely, though, this never happened, maybe reflecting changing societal ground on the subject or indeed the soap playing an active role in altering that terrain. But on the whole order and justice have to come out triumphant in most soap plots.

All will no doubt be revealed shortly in the present Archers plotline. The Rob/Helen story has provided gripping if uncomfortable listening for millions of people. It has been the ability to reach these millions that makes the Archers together with other soaps such powerful tools in communicating social problems. Whilst some among the millions who tune in every week will regret the demise of their comfort blanket, there will be many more who recognise much in the storyline that applies to their own lives – there will even be those who fall into both categories. What is for sure is the Archers and particularly its editor Sean O’Connor deserve much credit for producing this domestic abuse storyline. The editor though, sadly, won’t be overseeing Ambridge life for much longer .. he’s off to Eastenders. Cup of tea anyone?

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