Radio 4 soap opera The Archers enjoys a unique status. Not only is it the world’s longest running radio drama, in its 65 years on air it has become an English cultural touchstone too. Everyone know that distinctive jaunty theme tune (an evocation of traditional maypole dances by Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood): those bouncing notes ring out and millions settle down to catch the latest twists and turns of life in the by-now-thoroughly legendary fictional village of Ambridge.
Nevertheless, over the years The Archers has slowly changed from “an everyday story of country folk“, as it used to be billed, into a rather less evocative “contemporary drama in a rural setting” as the producers work hard to ensure its appeal to a modern audience who now overwhelmingly live in towns and cities and who have plenty of other dramas competing for their time and attention. Falling livestock prices and gossip in The Bull no longer quite cuts the mustard: drama and controversy is what generates headlines and gets people talking on Twitter.
So it was when I was asked to help with a storyline a few years ago. The scriptwriters asked me to create the most devious moves in a divorce I could think of. Freed from the restraints of client interests and legal professional regulation, I came up with what I thought was a corker. Clearly so did they because they used it and listeners consequently heard how to defraud a wife using a company and hiving profits into a secret undeclared partnership.
The latest storyline, arguably far worse, reached a dramatic climax on Sunday, when the character Helen Titchener snapped after months of domestic abuse by her husband Rob and stabbed him in the kitchen of their home, the bucolic-sounding Blossom Hill Cottage. Naturally the nation was agog and Twitter was flooded with comment. It appeared to be the soap’s first ever murder – although subsequent episodes suggest Rob has in fact survived….
The Archers has a large, predominantly female audience and it was no surprise that many came out strongly in favour of Helen, praising the show for its depiction of this sensitive subject and claiming that Rob had deserved his fate.
One wrote that the episode had been an “Incredible depiction of abuse – true public service from the BBC.”
Meanwhile, Polly Neate of Women’s Aid claimed the storyline had led to a surge in calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline.
But there were dissenting voices, most prominently perhaps, veteran campaigner Erin Pizzey, who established the very first domestic violence shelter in the world, Chiswick Women’s Aid, in 1971. It survives to this today, now known as Refuge.
But despite her innovation, Pizzey rapidly fell out of favour with mainstream feminist campaigners of the 1970s when she continued to claim that most domestic abuse is bidirectional or mutual, with husbands and wives in problem families abusing each other in largely equal measure. Rather than being passive victims, she declared, the majority of women taking refuge in her shelter were just as violent as the men they had fled.
This was not a narrative which found favour with other domestic campaigners., who insisted that domestic violence must be seen as an overwhelmingly male-on-female problem. Any suggestion to the contrary was, to use the modern phrase, ‘victim blaming’.
Pizzey moved abroad, following, she claimed, threats and harassment. Now in her 70s, she continues to campaign on the issue, still a controversial and fiery figure. In an article for the Daily Mail yesterday, she was forthright in her views on the Helen and Rob storyline: it could, she claimed, encourage abused women to resort to violence rather than simply leaving violent partners.
Interestingly, she claimed that most women in violent relationships do exactly that, while men are more likely to stay because “there are no refuges for men”.
The Helen and Rob story had never been about “chasing listening figures” and not creating a realistic depiction of domestic violence, Pizzey continued, recalling her own childhood experiences with a violent mother and family history of abuse.
She was also very critical of those Archers fans who had suggested Rob deserved to be stabbed, writing:
“In very few … cases would I justify such vengeful violence. Only if the victim is on the verge of being killed can it be right to stab, or kill, the attacker.”
Was The Archers guilty, as Pizzey suggested, of perpetuating “the myth that all men are bastards, that they deserve what’s coming to them”, or was that taking a slice of entertainment just a little too seriously?
Naturally, her article was criticised on Twitter as “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “unwise”. Some took issue with her claim that women in abusive relationships could and should just leave.
Little has changed, it seems, in the 45 years since Chiswick Women’s Aid opened its doors. As a society we remain reluctant to acknowledge male victims of domestic violence and still much prefer to focus solely on women, despite credible evidence that men make up a significant minority of those caught up in violent relationships. Meanwhile Erin Pizzey remains just at odds as she ever was with mainstream thought on the issue she did so much to pioneer.
Read Erin Pizzey’s article here.