THE Archers is a soap for people who say they don’t like soaps, the snob’s soap if you like. And I can say that because that’s me.
For years I listened to the omnibus edition every Sunday, almost as a form of worship. I have been losing that religion lately and more often listen to Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music instead, although I still drift in and out of the nightly instalments of the BBC Radio Four tale of farming folk.
Last night the longest episode ever was transmitted. And now I must insert a plot spoiler alert here – and how odd that seems for the Archers, that humdrum village of horticultural dullness punctuated by moments of high drama. This plot reveal doesn’t concern crop rotation or what to feed pigs or whatever. No, it’s the trial of Helen Titchener.
The usual short burst was turned into a gripping hour of radio as Helen stood trial for the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob – a relatively new character who, over the space of a couple of years or so, turned into the biggest villain in the history of the Archers.
This storyline hasn’t pleased everyone, as the misery has been piled on Helen Archer (as was) for years. Wasn’t there a partner who shot himself or something? And all that cheese making, too. Anyway, Helen found herself in an abusive relationship with a controlling, nasty and yet plausible man.
For month after miserable month, only the listener and Helen knew what Rob was like, as to everyone else in Ambridge he seemed like a perfect partner.
This was clever writing and this story of cruel intimacy took so long to play out. It was also quite a gamble, as the rising ride of Helen misery put some people off the Archers, for good in some cases. All that intense emotional claustrophobia made for a difficult listen.
Helen became a figurehead for the victims of domestic abuse in a story that seemed horribly real, for the simple reason that it was horribly real. There was a hinted-at rape along the way, and also the endless diminishment of Helen’s character and confidence, as she succumbed to the controlling strictures of a man clever in his cruelness.
She stabbed Rob in the end – or he gave her a knife in a row, told her to kill herself, then ran at the blade in her hand. I never was quite sure, which is what happens when you betray your faith and wander over to listen to music instead.
Last night’s hour-long episode, the first in 65 years, mostly took the form of a discussion in the jury room. Nigel Havers had a guest role as the nasty chairman of the jury, a man who, it transpired, was another version of Rob Titchener, at least in his bitterness towards women.
Anyway, after much deliberation, and the possibility of more Helen-shaped misery, she was acquitted of attempted murder and wounding with intent. And hooray for that: any other verdict would have been a travesty. Although don’t expect everything to run smoothly for Helen from now on. In a mean little coda, last night’s mega-episode saw Rob confront her after the trial, suggesting more bumps in the farm track ahead.
We listened while we ate a stir-fry with our home-from-uni daughter, who is more of an EastEnders and Corrie girl. She wasn’t impressed with the idea of a whole hour of the Archers, but listened in the end.
Other jurors were played by well-known actors, including Dame Eileen Atkins and Catherine Tate (who sounded annoyingly just like Catherine Tate). In a sort of in-joke, one juror was played by Graham Seed, who was cast as Nigel Pargetter in the Archers for 27 years, until he fell off a roof in a storm.
It was a cruel end for a good character, a bumbling toff and decent sort. But Nigel did at least leave the airwaves with the longest scream in radio history. Altogether now: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”