Self-portrait by Jane Fox/Flickr
Postcard from London
By John Martin
Every so often I enjoy revisiting childish innocence by watching The Jungle Book (1967), based on Rudyard Kipling’s famous children’s tale. There’s a dramatic moment when Kaa the venomous snake sings, “Trusssst in me” to hypnotize Mowgli, the boy who is saved from the dark arts of the wily reptile in the nick of time.
The Archers is Britain’s longest-running radio soap opera. It first went to air on New Year’s Day 1951. It is heard six days a week on BBC Radio 4, the country’s premier speech station. Originally it was billed as “an everyday story of country folk.” For many years the plots moved at snail’s pace, one of its aims being to boost agricultural production in a post-war nation struggling to achieve food security.
The Ministry of Agriculture cooperated closely with its BBC producers and plots often centered on a middle-class family determined to make a go of farming, an improvident one that muddled through, and a rich man who used farming to achieve a tax loss, something that is no longer possible.
These days The Archers is described as a “contemporary drama in a rural setting.” It has run to more than 17,850 episodes. Its plots now have many of the hallmarks of urban television soaps: clandestine love affairs, rape, family dysfunction, crime, death by misadventure, fire, and flood. Until now, however, it has stopped short of murder.
About two years ago The Archers embarked on a dark story line dramatizing domestic abuse and coercive control, seeking to provide a realistic picture of an issue confronting many women. It coincides with a new Parliamentary Act recognizing this issue in British life. My wife, Deirdre, and I have listened nonstop to the Archers for the best part of two decades but we eventually found this turgid story line a bridge too far and have simply followed plots via internet summaries. That is until recently.
Helen Titchener (nee Archer) is married to a former dairy manager, Rob. At first she is deeply in love. On the surface he is charming and able, but slowly there unfolds a creepy, manipulative, and domineering character. He undermines her self-confidence, demands to know every detail of her movements and restricts them, puts up barriers to her friends and family, and takes control of her finances and family business. There is an uncanny parallel with the actions of Kaa and his attempt to paralyse the young Mowgli.
Following a tip from a friend, Deirdre and I tuned in the replay of an episode in which the Helen-Rob drama comes to an awful climax. Helen is determined to leave, reportedly the most dangerous moment in an abusive domestic arrangement. Helen is subject to a torrent of horrible verbal and physical abuse. Rob hands her a knife and taunts her to use it as “the only way out,” saying, “you are nothing without me here.” It then goes quiet. Helen rings a friend to say she killed him to make him stop.
In real life in Britain two women are killed every week by a current or former partner. Police on average receive one call every minute about domestic abuse. Yet it is estimated that only about 35 percent of domestic abuse cases are actually reported. Contrary to what happened in The Archers, men are the main perpetrators of violence and domestic deaths.
Certainly this story line is shedding light on an area of life that’s much neglected. In true British fashion the story has triggered a charitable appeal to help women’s refuge centres and almost £100,000 ($143,000) was donated in less than a month.
Already the plot is attracting church comment. Paul Woolley, acting CEO of the Bible Society, who also admits to having taken a break from The Archers because of this story line, has said: “As the story of Rob and Helen shows, physical abuse doesn’t necessarily start soon after a couple get together. It can occur after weeks, months, and often years of emotional abuse. The victim will have been belittled and worn down.”
He continued: “It’s difficult to think of a behavior that is more antithetical to the gospel. ‘I give a new commandment to you,’ Jesus said: ‘Love one another; just as I have loved you, you should also love one another’” (John 13:34).
And he concludes, “It’s time for all of us in the Church to play our part in unmasking this evil and doing everything we possibly can to support the victims of such violence.”