All storytelling requires, at its heart, a relationship with the audience. Arguably most tangible in the theatre, where the performers and audience share the same time and space, this relationship is set apart on radio by the level of investment the medium demands from the listener’s imagination.
Fans of radio drama are not distracted by an actor’s name or face. They have just the voice to hang on to, along with the skill of the director and studio engineers to create the soundscape of each scene. All the rest – the visual void – is filled in uniquely by the listener.
It’s the reason we invariably hate the movie version of our favourite book – because it hasn’t been realised exactly as we imagined it. The characters and locations are all wrong!
Which brings me to The Archers. The longest-running continuing drama, or ‘soap,’ in any media anywhere in the world. It has a very loyal and surprisingly vocal audience of almost five million people each week – and that’s just those who listen live on air, not counting the growing number of fans listening via BBC iPlayer Radio or the podcast. And thus there are more than five million versions of Ambridge deeply imbedded in the subconscious of its followers, to draw on whenever the theme tune strikes up.
I believe that this is one reason that the story of Helen and the abuse she has suffered at the hands of her husband Rob Titchener has proved to be so powerful and resonant. The writing has been superb – Tim Stimpson deserves a special mention – but the whole team have nurtured this narrative and its impact on the village with meticulous care and attention to detail. Louiza Patikas, who plays Helen, is simply fantastic and has been a joy to work with.
The storyline has played out in ‘real time’. Which means there has been no hurrying through of a domestic tragedy. Instead, it’s been given what has been required to do proper justice to the subject of domestic abuse. A slow and, for many listeners, painful drip-feed of events over the best part of three years. A Chinese burn of a storyline, as one journalist described it.
Both Women’s Aid and Refuge have been some of the supportive charities and expert advisors during the development process of the storyline. Polly Neate, the head of Women’s Aid, has said the playing out of this scenario in a rural and middle class community has done a huge amount to highlight the fact that domestic abuse can and does occur anywhere and everywhere. And whilst it has been difficult listening for many, either because they have personal experience of an abuser like Rob or simply because they would prefer their Ambridge life to play out free of such gritty realities, the majority of Archers fans have been gripped and hugely supportive of the storyline and the careful telling of it.
There is a responsibility to get something like this right. The subject and all minor details along the way have been meticulously researched but at the same time, it is a story.
So, I am frequently asked, what’s Rob like to play? Well it sounds trite, but – it’s a privilege. The old cliche that ‘the villains are the most fun to play’ is in part, true (although along with ‘break a leg’ and ‘I’m not out of work, just resting’, I’ve never once heard it said by an actor). But Rob Titchener is more than a ‘villain’. He is arrogant, narcissistic and abusive psychopath. He is also – so he believes – charming, kind, loving and selfless. Very complex, in other words. And therein lies the challenge and the thrill to the actor.
My first responsibility is to the lines on the page, and my job is to bring them to life in a way that is consistent and true to the disturbed personality of Rob Titchener. Never once have I thought, how villainous should I be? He must exist within the whole range of characters as believable. In recent weeks one or two people have said to me, “I almost feel sorry for him”. Which is remarkable given his crimes. But I’m thrilled because it tells me that the response to him is detailed and nuanced.
In Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Alec is arrogant, entitled, philandering and – let’s not forget – a rapist. He ruins Tess in every possible way. In the end she kills him because she is driven to it out of desperation. That murder also seals her fate. But there is no sense of triumphalism at his demise, not least because we know it will only end badly for Tess. Thankfully Rob survived the stabbing at Blossom Hill or his cruelty might never have come to light. It is working out where and how men like Rob Titchener and Alex D’Urbeville have gone wrong that may help shed a bit of light on the cause of the tragically widespread incidence of domestic abuse in all communities up and down the country. It’s wonderful that The Archers and Sean O’Connor, the former editor of the show who developed and oversaw the Helen and Rob storyline, have brought this important issue to the fore. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
The Archers is on BBC Radio 4 on weekdays at 7pm and the omnibus on Sundays at 10am. It’s also available as a podcast and via BBC iPlayer Radio