This is perhaps my most serious blog post so far and it’s one that has been brewing for a little while. In the next week a character in Radio 4’s venerable soap opera The Archers, Helen Titchener née Archer is going on trial for attempted murder of her husband Rob.
If you are not familiar with The Archers here’s a quick history, feel free to skip a paragraph or two. The Archers is a daily (almost) 12 minute radio soap opera set in the fictional country village of Ambridge, in the equally fictional English county of Borsetshire. The everyday day lives of country folk have been told for a very long time. Since 1951 in fact. It started out as a way of getting farming information out to the population in a more relaxed and accessible way then Ministry men in suits talking down to men in wellies. However, the story and characters soon outgrew that brief and it became a staple for listeners across the country, even surviving the advent of mass television ownership. Generations have grown up listening to The Archers and the usual fodder of the soaps; deaths, affairs, babies, illness and, like most soaps, it’s a pretty unsafe place to live around Christmas or Easter.
What I think sets it slightly apart from other soaps, is the time it takes to develop story lines and, well, at times it just punches harder than other soaps. As a cancer survivor myself, when Ruth Archer had breast cancer treatment in 2000, it really hit a nerve and I felt the writing and portrayal was plausible, emphatic and very moving.
So, yeah, it gets accused of being smug, naively idealistic and bucolic and offering an unnatural slice of English country green nostalgia. (Billy Connolly once suggested the adoption of the theme tune as the national anthem, an idea not entirely without merit in my opinion)
So, Rob and Helen Titchener. This plot has taken a couple of years to grow to the point we’ve reached now and it has been horrible to listen to much of it. Basically, Rob came to the village as a new Dairy Manager and soon began an affair with single mum Helen Archer. He was handsome, charming and very much an alpha male (In his own head at least). He dumped Helen when his wife turned up and we began to glimpse the other side of him as his marriage soon fell apart and he picked Helen back up.
They moved in together with her little boy Henry (born of a sperm donor so he has had no father) to some consternation to her family. However Rob’s charm and apparent studious attention and devotion to Helen and Henry soon quelled any concerns and, as far as the village were concerned, they were a blissful happy family.
I can’t quite be sure when I picked up that the the plot was taking a much more darker and unpleasant tone, but it was some time ago. And here I have to commend the two main actors, Louiza Patikas playing Helen and Timothy Watson as Rob. His wheedling tone never, at the beginning at least, strayed into pantomime villain. He was always calm, occasionally stern but so very concerned. When looked at individually, his demands, and behaviour were plausible and reasonable and, though you might disagree, they weren’t outright abusive. But looked at as an overview it becomes clear that he is exhibiting the signs of coercive control over Helen and Henry.
They marry, on a whim, away from her family who might have objected, because, in his words, it was more romantic like that. He took on the legal responsibility of Henry, to ‘become his proper daddy’. After a serious accident at the family farm, he leaves his job and starts working with Helen at the farm shop, spreading and exerting his influence and own reputation of being an heroic alpha male.
Inch by inch he took over her life, and she soon became pregnant. (So far it hasn’t explicitly been said but on the night in question it was clear she wasn’t in the mood but he wouldn’t listen to her complaints, so rape.) His mother moves in to help during the pregnancy and made things worse as poor Helen became isolated from her family and friends, trapped in the hell of the idyllic Blossom Hill Cottage. Any obvious unhappiness or frailty noticed was put down to a difficult pregnancy. All this continues to build until Kirsty, a friend of Helen’s returns to the village and notices the dramatic difference in her and guesses the cause. She urges her to take action and call a helpline and the scales begin to fall from Helen’s eyes.
Finally, in April, it all came to a head, in an episode when Helen tells Rob she is leaving him. A vicious argument ensues where ultimately Rob places a knife in her hand and tells her the only way she’ll ever be free of him is if she kills herself. At that moment, Henry comes into the kitchen to see what they are shouting about and Rob turns his anger on him. We don’t know what he would do though as Helen, to defend her son, lashes out with the knife and repeatedly stabs Rob. The episode ends with her calling Kirsty to till her she’s killed him. In the next installment though, as Kirsty rushes to the scene she discovers he is not dead, but severely injured. Helen is immediately arrested and it all royally kicks off.
So we are left with the situation that a woman, who has a history of mental illness in her past, who recently has been seen exhibiting signs of mental distress and unbalance again has allegedly snapped and tried to kill her doting, heroic husband. We know what happened as the audience, but nobody else does. We are left facing a trial it seems nearly impossible for Helen to win. We have been promised high drama and high emotion in the coming week as it unfolds. There are plenty of people who have seen signs of Rob’s true character but ultimately, whatever he has done elsewhere, she is still the one who used the knife on him. And she, still trying to free herself of his mental influence, has been unable to truly explain her situation and what happened.
I finally get to the point…
Still with me? Good, because this is my point and I think it’s an important one. Coercive control over a partner is now a crime, but one that is hellishly difficult to prosecute, I’d imagine, as it’s all words. Rob has only ever hit Helen once, that we know of,and that was because ‘she was becoming hysterical’ and she ended up apologising that he had to do it.(She had actually discovered he was arranging to send away the 5 year old Henry to boarding school, so her fury was understandable).
There has been massive support on social media for Helen. There is currently a trend on Twitter of people taking pictures of themselves with a cup of tea to show ‘solidari-tea’ with Helen and other abuse victims, with the hashtag #FreeHelen. I know, from listening to The Archers fan podcast DumTeeDum, that many listeners have found the whole storyline very stressful and some have even stopped listening because of it.
Now, I don’t know what dramatic devices will be employed in the series in the next week. But, ultimately, in the real world, it’s hard to see how a real life Helen would stand a hope in hell of getting acquitted.
And there are other victims, too many, who live with this controlling behaviour from their partners every day, so I finally get to the question I ask in the title…
Am I Rob Titchener? Am I a controlling husband/father? Am I a monster? I don’t think I am but frankly, who does? Do we suppose the character, Rob Titchener, feels he is a villain, a skillful Machiavelli twisting the will of those around him as he twists his evil moustache? Does he look into the mirror and think ‘I am a bad man, doing bad things’?
He rationalises it to himself. He thinks of himself as entirely reasonable in his actions and justified in his behaviour, because he knows what is best for his family. Even if that means applying pressure to make sure they see things as he does.
He told Helen how to dress, how she should wear her hair. He poured scorn onto her friends and fermented gossip to drive a wedge between them. He isolated her from her family and those closest to her to prevent them from being a contrary influence. He destroys her self-confidence until all that is left in her head is his voice, his judgment. He does all this to maintain the image he has in his head of the perfect family, behaving perfectly. (We meet his father after the assault who is clearly just as monstrous).
And all this happens within a close knit community of friends and family, and nobody sees it happen. Because he isn’t physically beating her there are no bruises or black eyes for her to hide. In this fiction, things rise to a dramatic point and she lashes out with violence. In real life there is no such convenient narrative. Women will live with this abuse for years and years and years. To protect their children, to protect themselves. They will become a ‘Stepford Wife’, a perfect android example, because the fear of causing displeasure is so great it quells any thought of escape or rebellion.
Abuse within the family home is horrendous. Be it physical, sexual or mental. But it happens too often and is hidden because often people don’t want to see it. They don’t believe that someone they know could be the cause of such pain.
So, I am a man. I am a father and a husband. I think I am, largely, a good man. But so does Rob Titchener.
Dare I look at myself honestly and ask ‘Am I Rob’?
If you would like to talk to anyone on the subject of Coercive Control, or any form of abuse, you will find links to organisations who can help you on this BBC webpage. I have largely written, in this post, about abuse by men towards women. I am very aware it also happens the other way round and in same sex couples. If one partner, if one child, is in daily fear of their partner, or parent, then they are victims of abuse.