WGGB Deputy Chair Tim Stimpson (pictured left) wrote the Archers domestic abuse storyline, which takes another dramatic turn this week with the trial of Helen Titchener. It’s a story, he argues, that illustrates the power – and the true worth – of radio drama
If money is an indicator of worth (which of course it isn’t) then radio drama clearly isn’t held in great esteem. For some reason the low cost of production is also applied to the talent involved – both come cheap – which begs the question: why bother writing for radio? There can’t be any better example of the real worth of radio drama than the trial of Helen Titchener, which has been airing all this week on The Archers.
I have had the great honour of writing many key moments in this long-running storyline, from creating the character of Rob (although he originally wasn’t quite the monster he’s become), to the stabbing, to the trial, to the hour-long special that goes out this Sunday. However, I don’t think any of us on the team anticipated the huge response it would get. As well as #thearchers frequently trending on Twitter and listening figures rising to almost 5 million, the story has brought the issue of domestic violence, and in particular coercive control, to the fore. A JustGiving page inspired by Helen’s plight has so far raised £138,000 for Refuge, and Women’s Aid has reported a 20% increase in women contacting them seeking help. Perhaps even more startlingly, men who have heard the show have also sought help having recognised themselves in Rob’s abusive behaviour.
So how has a 65-year-old agriculture soap made by a tiny team in the endlessly denigrated city of Birmingham managed to have such an impact? My theory is that it’s found that perfect spot we all look for as writers: where story naturally evolves from character, finding its ideal expression in the medium and then resonates with the wider public consciousness as a whole. For some ‘Archers Addicts’ the parallels between the insidious nature of Rob’s abuse and the insidious nature of radio drama have made it a difficult listen. Radio is intimate, it’s homely – it’s what we put on in the kitchen as we’re cooking our tuna bake for dinner – and the drip-drip-drip of 12.5-minute episodes every night means that Rob’s control and manipulation feels as though it is being done to us. But it also means we can empathise with an issue that has often been overlooked precisely because it is slow and incremental and hidden behind closed doors. I don’t believe any other medium could achieve this.
Despite its reputation as a cosy institution The Archers has proven that radio drama is extremely well suited to the 21st Century. As writers and listeners we must treasure it. Hundreds of hours of new writing are broadcast every year on the BBC and it is precisely because it is cheap that writers are able to take risks, experiment and tell stories that wouldn’t have a chance elsewhere.
Like every area of the BBC The Archers has had its share of cuts and it’s only because of the passion, dedication and expertise of those involved that it manages to carry on. As well as raising issues around domestic abuse I hope that Helen’s story also helps to place a real value on radio drama.
Watch Tim Stimpson talking on BBC Breakfast about the Archers Trial storyline:
Above illustration of the Archers Trial: Julia Quenzier